Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (PS4) Review
THE SHORT VERSION
Much like my assessment of Lian Hearn's recent work, there are times when my critical and subjective opinions clash. On the one hand, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a solid, visually luscious and intricately-detailed action-RPG that nonetheless could've done with a slightly meatier runtime and some more engagement in the main story arc.
On the other, though, it's a beautiful cyberpunk game that puts me back in the stylish trenchcoat of one of my favourite video game protagonists ever. There are call backs to the previous game, call forwards to the future ones, and all of it wrapped within the same immersive, Blade Runner-esque experience that made Deus Ex: Human Revolution such a joy to play.
So take this review for whatever it's worth. I am a sucker for Deus Ex and the cyberpunk genre, and was thus able to overlook a few of Mankind Divided's deficiencies (minor though they ultimately are). As a game critic, I thought it was an excellent addition to an already sterling year in gaming. As a fan of Deus Ex and cyberpunk, it's quickly become one of my new favourites.
Two years after Human Revolution’s ending put paid to the glorious golden age of human cybernetic augmentation – thanks to the Panchaea Incident, a tragedy where the global augmented community, or “Augs”, were driven into uncontrollable homicidal rage – the world has descended into chaos. Anti-augmentation sentiment permeates the globe, shunting the transhuman population into ramshackle ghettoes and oppressive police action cities like Prague.
With Sarif Industries having collapsed after the Panchaea Incident, Adam Jensen’s taken up work with the Interpol-led Task Force 29, operating out of Prague. TF29’s job is to hunt augmented terrorists who are threatening an already unstable planet; Adam’s specifically tasked to track down the perpetrator of a train station bombing which kills dozens and shakes the Czech Republic to its core. With a volatile atmosphere of distrust surrounding Augs and a controversial anti-augmentation Act poised to pass into law, Adam seeks to bring down the bombers, clear the name of a pro-augmentation group, and perhaps even further unravel the plans of a clandestine group of powerful world figures who will stop at nothing to burn everything to the ground.
Sounds pretty good, right? I should write marketing blurbs or something.
Where Human Revolution was more of a private eye, Neuromancer-via-Altered Carbon-style venture, Mankind Divided most readily resembles a hybrid of District 9, X-Men and 24. The latter is most evident in TF29’s home base which, underneath the city centre of Prague, more than a little resembles CTU Los Angeles. Adam’s new job as an Interpol agent quickly establishes that we’ve left the gumshoe-inspired investigative fancies of Human Revolution, and are instead being thrown headfirst into a more direct counter-terrorism allegory – for better or worse.
While Mankind Divided’s politicised story definitely isn’t as provocative or controversial as the backlash the “Mechanical Apartheid” and “Aug Lives Matter” marketing material invited, it’s also not as drenched in thoughtful socio-political subtext as it thinks it is. It’s not a bad thing that the game prioritises the main character’s journey rather than an innate desire to be socially topical at the expense of the narrative’s focus, but I was led to believe there’d be a much stronger emphasis on the thematic throughline than we were given; maybe that’s just the academic in me. Though there are plenty of post-9/11 allusions throughout, such as the continuous and ominous mentions of “Panchaea” or “the Incident”, as well as the hardline xenophobia exhibited towards many innocent Augs who are blamed for the crimes of their “people”, the story prefers to stick with Adam and leave all the rest of it as subtextual set dressing. The best science fiction – and cyberpunk in particular – really says something about the issues it glimpses through the fictional lens, so it was disappointing that Mankind Divided didn’t take the opportunity to really get down and dirty with its subtext.
I’ll also say, without spoiling, that I feel we’re definitely being set up for sequels here. Human Revolution very concretely cordoned off its plot when it ended, providing a direct link to the original Deus Ex in its ending credits; by contrast, Mankind Divided instead communicates that there’s more yet to come. There’s still enough resolution in the ending we do get, though it comes quite abruptly and at a wholly unexpected place in the narrative which also leaves the game feeling a little shorter than Human Revolution. (EDIT: While they may not be full sequels, we do have confirmed story-based DLC coming shortly).
Despite the above, the story’s still incredibly immersive. Adam’s one of the most well-drawn video game protagonists – literally and metaphorically – of the recent age, and it’s still fascinating to experience the near-future world of augmentations through his sunglass-implanted eyes. His story’s compelling, surrounded by a supporting cast of new and interesting secondary characters (most are pretty well-rounded, though I do miss the likes of Human Revolution’s Pritchard and Faridah). The city of Prague’s also a dense narrative hub rich with sidequests, background character interactions, interactive documents and readable newspapers, all of which help illustrate the finer details of Mankind Divided’s world. Like I said above, I’m an absolute sucker for well-rendered cyberpunk environments, and the game’s immersion factor – derived from its meticulously-constructed and lived-in locales – was so potent that it caused me to overlook some of the minor flaws in setting and story. The ending also emphasises that your in-game choices have power and consequence, which I especially appreciated after the last game’s agency-removing, choose-your-own-ending machine.
Of course, having engrossing plot only matters if you’ve got a set of solid game mechanics to get through it…
…which, yes, you definitely do.
Bringing back most of the alternate FPS/cover-based-shooting approach from its predecessor, Mankind Divided has a much smoother player interface this time round. Shooting, takedowns, hacking and using/upgrading augmentations (including a few new “experimental” ones, like the ability to shoot nano-blades and activate bullet time) have been fine-tuned and turned into a much tighter experience. There really is no greater satisfaction than the weighty thud of knocking a foe out with an augmented fist, or using the new tesla wrist augmentation to zap enemies unconscious.
The game also brings back the neat option of undertaking a Pacifist run with no enemy casualties, helped by the near-absence of the boss battles that plagued Human Revolution. Though ultimately it can be accomplished – I managed to snag a Pacifist PSN trophy on my first playthrough – there are occasional issues where non-lethal takedowns inexplicably kill the victim, necessitating the reload of an earlier save. Granted, getting knocked on the noggin by a fist with the power of an ocean liner piston can’t really be anything other than an invitation for a lethal cerebral haemorrhage, but the game could be a bit fairer with whether or not it decides that happens.
The big new feature is Breach, a standalone mode which represents hacking a computer as a first-person stylised, Portal-esque, sterile, trap-laden environment which the player needs to navigate. To be frank, I’m not a fan; Breach plays like a fairly uninvolving, somewhat repetitive puzzle add-on which contributes little of interest to the game. Its use in the main story is warranted, if a little on the tedious side, but it’s not the kind of thing I’d sink hours into all on its own.
There are also a New Game Plus feature and a difficulty setting memetically titled ‘I Never Asked For This’, which gives you one life for the entire game and deletes your save game if you die, no matter how far through the story you are. I foresee many controllers being snapped in frustration here, but on the other hand it’s always nice to cater to the Dark Souls-style crowd with a mode like this.
The five years between games has clearly allowed Eidos Montreal to refine Deus Ex’s graphical qualities, particular in terms of the people you’re shooting at. Character movements are no longer the rubber-jointed scarecrow enactments they were before, instead moving with a more realistic gait and collapsing in a way that doesn’t make them resemble Homer Simpson lying in an inflatable pool.
More important than that, the game’s environments are simply gorgeous. As I said above, Prague feels like a lived-in, intricately-detailed city, thanks in no small part to the level of visual fidelity on display. There are a number of suburbs and shops that can be freely explored and each feel like their own places, rather than cookie-cutter rooms sprinkled throughout the hub. Levels outside Prague are also well-constructed, with particular note given to the Aug ghetto Golem City; it resembles what the cities in Blade Runner might look like after a natural disaster.
My only graphical quibble is that items and drawers which can be plundered no longer stick out as they did in the previous game. Rather than the gold outline in Human Revolution, interactive objects now have a thin white line around them, separating them from the rest of the background detail; there’s an optical augmentation you can use to find them more easily, but that sometimes feels like needless busywork. In opting to eschew its previous black-and-gold colour palette and going for the greyer industrial tone set by the original game, Mankind Divided inadvertently makes the scavenger hunt aspect a little more of a chore to accomplish.
SOUND AND MUSIC
Three cheers for the musical tag team of Michael McCann and Sascha Dikiciyan, who absolutely kill it on the score here. McCann’s Human Revolution soundtrack was easily my favourite game score in years, and his welcome return here brings back a Vangelis-inspired flavour to the soundscape. Other sound effects are uniformly great, with the layered ambience of industrial sounds, vehicles, footsteps and weather effects contributing to the game’s lived-in feel.
The major aural criticism I have is to do with dialogue, and several characters’ in particular. I’m especially not keen on former SAS commando Jim Miller, Adam’s boss at TF29, who’s a thick-accented Australian with dialogue that is far from subtle in its delivery. I’m unsure as to whether it’s because of voice actor Vernon Wells, the vocal direction, or a combination of the two, but Miller just comes off as a loud Australian without anything resembling nuance in either his character or his vocal inflection. Almost every sentence Miller speaks throws me out of the experience, which is especially egregious when compared to the stellar vocal performances of Elias Toufexis as Adam and Victoria Sanchez as resident hacker Alex Vega. The same unfortunately goes for vocal legend Peter Serafinowicz’s turn as TF29 anti-Aug xenophobe Duncan MacCready, who’s similarly blatant and un-nuanced in his dialogue delivery.
But overall, the sound of Mankind Divided just enhances an already engrossing immersion factor. Put on some noise-cancelling headphones for this one, and stroll around near-future Prague for a bit in order to really get the full aural effect.
As I said at the start, it’s difficult for me to be objective about a game which ticks all my boxes like this. Not to say it’s perfect, but my critical opinion does come coloured with the fact that I’m an easy target for cyberpunk.
But even so, I’d argue Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is still one of the best games of 2016, whether you’re a fan of the genre or not. It’s technically solid, narratively engrossing even when it’s not entirely gripping, visually spectacular and aurally immersive. My quibbles are only chips in the surface surrounding an extremely solid core experience, one which was so excellent that I started a new game immediately after finishing the main plot. Definitely worth checking out.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is available now for PS4, Xbox One and PC.
Review copy kindly supplied to Geek of Oz by Square Enix.