Warning: Contains minor spoilers for Deux Ex: Mankind Divided.
Adam Jensen, antagonist of 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution and this it’s sequel, is cool. He looks cool, what with his black trench coat, carbon-fibre death arms and beard so pointy you could cut glass with it. He sounds cool, too, with his delivery drier than the surface of Mars. In fact, he’s probably a bit too cool for his own good, as he often comes across as more an impartial observer of humanity than someone invested in it.
Maybe that’s deliberate: a comment perhaps on how Jensen, augmented with so many cybernetic implants that he’s got more physically in common with a toaster than you or I, has had a portion of his humanity taken away. Or perhaps it’s a way of providing players with a cipher that doesn’t attempt to stamp too much personality onto proceedings.
Whatever the reasoning (if there is one), Jensen’s attitude highlights one of the main problems with Mankind Divided, which otherwise does so much to fix the problems of Human Revolution and emphasise what it did right. On the positive side, this is a game that excels in providing player agency and freedom to make progress the way you want to. Pretty much every scenario in the game has multiple routes to completion. The more gung-ho of us can rattle through the levels obliterating opponents with a mixture of gunfire and augment-enhanced melee, whilst those more inclined to a sneaky-sneakster approach can hide in air vents, surprising enemies with a whack to the head or a tranquiliser dart between the eyes. Where Mankind Divided really shines is not just with the sheer number of options available, but how easily you can shift your strategy as scenarios change. Whilst the AI isn’t always wholly convincing, it does a decent job and the gameplay is the most emergent I’ve seen since Metal Gear Solid V. This is no Assassin’s Creed with it’s multiple black-and-white fail-states.
Presentation-wise, MD is also top-notch. The central hub city – Prague – is a beautifully rendered environment, with differing day-and-night states, complete with fantastic lighting effects. Several of the other levels also contain vistas that are worth just sitting back and looking at for a good few minutes. Character models are an improvement on Human Revolution, if still not quite first-class, and the various interface elements of the game are clean, crisp and with a consistent design motif.
Where Mankind Divided falls down is with its plot and the disconnect between game and narrative. ‘Ludonarrative dissonance’ is one of those terms that gamers like to bandy about a lot, mainly because it sounds quite intelligent, and is often applied to titles such as Uncharted where Nathan Drake’s Hollywood-hero aesthetic in cut-scenes fails to mesh convincingly with his crazed-gun-man approach to combat encounters. Here the problem is that Deus Ex provides a world that is realistic, but where the actions of most players won’t be. My first instinct, for instance, when leaving Jensen’s apartment at the beginning of the game was to try and break into everyone else’s rooms in the building. Entering the top-secret Interpol headquarters, before going to my mission objective I preferred to wander around hacking people’s computers whilst they stood about ten feet away. Of course, you can argue that these were my play choices, but by allowing you the freedom to do these things and effectively incentivising them with XP rewards and consumables, the game is pushing you towards actions that don’t sit well with the narrative.
The plot also doesn’t really go anywhere. It starts off quite strong, with Jensen thrown into the middle of a conspiracy and then a terrorist attack, but following this it takes a while to get going again and then, when it does, it pretty much ends without much of a coda. I came away with the distinct feeling that I was missing not just the final chapter, but a whole volume. Perhaps this will come in DLC, though I can’t help but think the amount of story remaining really requires a whole new game.
Much has been made elsewhere of the political overtones of the game, in particular the segregation the narrative presents between augmented and ‘natural’ humans. This didn’t overly bother me, though at times it did seem to be laid on a little thick. Possibly the worst crime the game commits with regards to this is that it doesn’t provide a great deal of commentary to it; arguably this is down to the game’s primary aim to offer you as much agency as possible, but it does still come across as a bit empty.
Despite these nagging issues with the narrative, this is still most definitely a game worth playing. The sheer number of ways to play compensate somewhat for the relatively short length, and the top-notch presentation demonstrate that this is a game that’s had a lot of money spent on it.
Plus, Adam Jensen’s beard is cool.