Deus Ex: Mankind Divided review impressions

In the fifteen or so hours I’ve played of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided so far — the hours that I happily would have put in even if I wasn’t being paid to write this, shirking all other responsibilities if possible — my favourite moment has come during perhaps the most mundane mission segment I’ve undertaken. One of the side quests, which involves breaking into a bloody high-security bank and stealing valuable information, ends in a logistically simple request from the quest-giver: climb onto a nearby roof and hack the satellite dish up there so that they can broadcast the information out widely. That’s not really how satellites work, but whatever; Deus Ex has always had a pretty patchy idea of how a lot of things (hacking, e-mail, air vents) actually work.

There’s an obvious solution: use a biocell to power a hydraulic lift, climb into it, press the button, ride it up to the top. But biocells are precious resources. I had none on me at the time, and didn’t want to use any of my crafting materials to put one together, especially that early in the game when my inventory wasn’t crowded with weapons and tools (as it was a few hours later). Besides, this is a Deus Ex game — if there’s not another way up, the name on the title screen means nothing.

So I started collecting bins. I used my augmented strength to carry two huge dumpsters to the building, and managed to get one on top of the other. I tried to build a tower with the other bins, but it kept collapsing. I started to think that this plan won’t work, that the game won’t let me Deus Ex my way through this situation.

Realizing that I was in a bad spot to ascend from, I tried to move the dumpsters so that they were under a nearby awning. But there was a chatty couple right next to this spot, and one of the dumpsters kept slipping from its precarious position and killing one of them, prompting the nearby law enforcement to attack me. No good.

Finally, it hits me: the hydraulic lift was the answer the whole time. It’s already slightly elevated, so if I manage to throw the dumpsters in (which takes quite a bit of finesse), I should be able to build a smaller, more durable tower that will get me to the roof. This is, I think, the way Warren Spector and the rest of Ion Storm, designers of the original Deus Ex, would want me to do it.

Jumping from that bin, clamoring up onto the roof, was one of my gaming highlights of the year so far.

This is the kind of thrill I was hoping for.

The original Deus Ex is one of my favourite games ever made, even though I only got around to playing it three years ago. As far as games based around choice go, it’s almost unparalleled in just how open and performative it feels. I have very specific ideas of who my version of JC Denton was, and the philosophies that led to the decisions I made at the end of the game.

I played Denton as a man who was reclaiming his humanity, a man capable of killing children and ignoring the risk of civilian causalities at the beginning of the game, but who came to better understand the world around him, and the potential of people, as his globetrotting quest went on. My Denton killed a lot of people, but that’s because he, like I, preferred a thorough form of stealth, one that minimised the risk of him being found.

I played Adam Jensen with an opposite internal motive — to cast him as a man who lost his humanity as his augmentations took over — so being back with him, finding myself wanting to do different things with this character, has been jarring. Mankind Divided is set two years after the conclusion of Human Revolution, and renders your decisions over how that game ended largely meaningless, although considering how unsatisfying that game’s ending was this isn’t likely to prompt much complaint.

Mankind Divided’s primary narrative goal is to explore the divide between augmented humans and ‘normals’ (to use the game’s terminology), as tensions have risen after an incident in which augmented humans lost control and turned violent. This theme has attracted quite a bit of criticism (the game’s tone-deaf ‘Aug Lives Matter’ marketing slogan didn’t help), and it turns out that there’s not a whole lot of depth to the writing’s understanding of the tension the game portrays.

Anti-aug sentiment is transparently used as a stand-in for racism, which never quite fits because arguments around whether augmented people are inherently good or bad are, realistically, more about access to technology, wealth and status than they are about culture, background and birth.

It never quite fits that the technologically enhanced are being rounded up in ghettos. This focus also erases other issues of phobia from Deus Ex’s wider world. Is there still racism in the world of Deus Ex? What about transphobia, homophobia, sexism, nationalism, imperialism? There are confused messages in this game: the game’s corrupt, aggressive police force, for instance, feels like they’ve been made so awful not as any sort of commentary, but because it’s easier to justify slaughtering a bunch of them (should you choose to do that) if they’re clearly all pigs. Mankind Divided isn’t malicious with any of this, but it’s borrowing the vernacular and history of larger issues without really contributing anything.

With all of this in mind, world-building and character-crafting is definitely less of a thing in Mankind Divided than it was in Human Revolution or the original. The game’s fall-back, thankfully, is that it’s a tremendously well-crafted and enjoyable RPG-shooter experience, a stealth/action title that feels appropriately open-ended. While it’s not so easy to form an internal narrative about who Jensen is this time, there’s more scope in how you configure him as an action character thanks to an expanded range of augmented powers at your disposal.

Mankind Divided is structured so that you can tackle the ‘main’ plot at a relaxed pace, popping in and out of it as you see fit while exploring the often much more interesting side-quest options.

I got so caught up in several of the side-quests that I had no concept of being off the game’s main path as I completed them. While the game’s main story isn’t too interesting, the micro-narratives of these side-quests, which add up to a bigger understanding of the gears that make this game’s world turn, are fascinating. Most of them are set around Prague, the game’s primary segmented hub, and they’re pretty easy to get invested in. So far I’ve dealt with warring crime family interests, uncovered corruption scandals, and made the most heartbreaking decision about immigration paperwork I’ve made this side of Papers, Please.

The choices you make matter in Mankind Divided, as they have in every Deus Ex before it, but the game can sometimes be a bit too overt about this. Choices are often addressed directly at you — pick one or the other — instead of being contextually dictated by your actions. This means that you feel less of a sense of agency than you might like, although the actual decisions you need to make can be quite interesting.

Choice is ingrained in the series’ DNA on a deeper level as well. In the original Deus Ex, you’d sometimes have to McGuyver your way through a situation based on how you’d played and which powers and items you had. The game gave you just enough to get through any given situation, and any moment where you felt rich with resources was likely to be followed by a scenario where it made sense to use most of them.

Of course, comparing any game to the original, masterfully designed Deus Ex — even its direct sequels — isn’t fair. But right now my Jensen is kitted out like a one-man apocalypse. Levels are designed for stealth, often to a fault — there are goddamn vents everywhere — which means that sneaking around, knocking out and occasionally killing my enemies and robbing them of everything they’re carrying is pretty easy so far. Playing on the game’s regular difficulty setting, it’s not often that I’ve felt the need to really be inventive with my abilities or inventory.

Mankind Divided can occasionally feel like a game where the reality of what it is and ambition of what it wants to be are at odds with each other. But it’s tremendously enjoyable, even if it can’t keep up with the incredible legacy it’s following up on.

For all its silly additions (I can’t quite wrap my head around the purpose of Breach, the new arcade mode they’ve thrown in for this one) and off-course, half-baked politics, Mankind Divided is still recognizably a Deus Ex game — the sort of game where you can occasionally progress by stacking a bunch of bins on top of each other — and that’s more than enough to recommend it.