Playing through Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, one thought kept coming back to me over and over again: this should’ve been so much more. It’s been five years since Human Revolution brought the series’ signature open-ended stealth mechanics to modern systems, with a great setting, compelling plot, and uniquely old-school level design. Risky in nearly every way, the reboot felt like a big gamble on the part of Eidos Montreal and publisher Square Enix – one that paid off dividends as the game received very positive reactions from fans and critics alike.
Mankind Divided feels underwhelming in comparison. It’s not a bad game, but it’s something only marginally better: a safe one.
Where Human Revolution’s story took players to exotic locations around the world and placed protagonist Adam Jensen at the center of a plot that ultimately affected every single person in the Deus Ex universe, Mankind Divided features a single central location and tells a tale that rarely touches on the grand conspiracy unveiled in the last game. Where Human Revolution regularly gave players new weapons, attachments and augments to play with, Mankind Divided simply copies and pastes, with almost no new additions to speak of. Gameplay isn’t bad, but having completed Human Revolution multiple times, I got a sense of déjà vu while playing Mankind Divided that I was never able to shake off. For a sequel so long in the making, the number of new toys and gameplay mechanics that Mankind Divided brings to the table is disappointingly small.
The main plot is Mankind Divided’s biggest sin. It starts off promisingly enough, with protagonist Adam Jensen now working as a member of Interpol’s elite Task Force 29 and moonlighting as an agent of Janus, a group of underground hackers working to uncover the true nature of what’s going on in Deus Ex’s world of corporate conspiracies and Illuminati puppet masters. In the first hour, the appearance of a mysterious new faction of gold-masked terrorists and a train station bombing provide plenty of intrigue (not unlike the attack on Sarif Industries at the beginning of HR), but while the events at the beginning of the last game merely propelled Jensen into a much larger, intriguing mystery, this relatively insignificant train bombing (a side character points out early on that it’s the third one this month) is the mystery in Mankind Divided. The game’s scope is significantly smaller than its predecessor, and it’s way less engaging as a result. The stakes are lower, the world is smaller, and Jensen has a lot less personal attachment to the characters he deals with. The new additions are mostly uninteresting, with the exception of the mysterious Janus, a powerful hacker and ally of Jensen, whose intentions and identity are shrouded in mystery.
I got a sense of déjà vu while playing Mankind Divided that I was never able to shake off.
Unfortunately, they stay that way for the entirety of Mankind Divided, which is a good analogy for the plot as a whole. The game spends most of its 30 hour campaign spinning its wheels, and it’s unclear why. The ending of the last game left players with a million questions about the Illuminati, Jensen’s ex-girlfriend Megan, and what Adam would do with the information he now had about the nefarious things various corporations were up to. Mankind Divided does its best to answer absolutely none of those questions, and aside from a couple of sci-fi Facetime calls with Jensen’s old boss David Sarif and a single post-credits scene with a major reveal about [redacted], there are no returning characters or locations from last time around, and nothing new is revealed about the Illuminati or the world at large. Character development is equally flat, with a handful of uninteresting new additions in the form of Jensen’s Task Force 29 buddies, who seem to exist solely to point him at the next objective. They aren’t interesting, their development is laughable (One guy hates you, then suddenly doesn’t. Heartwarming stuff.), and their leader’s VO is so stilted and cringeworthy that you can’t help but resent him whenever he’s on screen.
However, the worst bit of Mankind Divided’s story isn’t any of these things. That particular honor goes to the game’s villain. A good chunk of the first 6-8 hours is spent building up the mystery around who masterminded the bombing, only to then introduce him and Jensen in an unmissable sequence that makes it painfully obvious that he’s a really bad dude. Worse still, if you’ve spent any time viewing Mankind Divided’s various promotional materials, you’ll likely have seen the identity of this character blatantly revealed in the game’s first trailer, effectively spoiling the big twist it seems like Eidos Montreal going for, given that Jensen only realizes that this guy’s definitely the villain in the final act of the game. Being one hundred percent sure of this guy’s guilt about twenty hours before Jensen was ruined any tension that the plot could’ve had, and made watching Jensen go after the wrong people for most of the game in order to eventually figure out the truth all the more frustrating. There were still fun moments along the way, with a mission that sees Jensen sneaking into a bank to unearth dirty corporate secrets, and another where he must dispatch disguised terrorists on the floor of a crowded party standing out above the rest, but the plot itself rarely gave me any motivation to move forward.
In the final hours of the game, when Jensen finally starts putting the pieces together and the stakes are raised as he discovers the end goal of his foes, another immensely frustrating wrinkle gets thrown into the mix as the entire city is put under martial law. In effect, the developers take the open world you’ve been running around for dozens of hours and make it incredibly hostile to Jensen by placing dozens of shoot-to-kill cops, turrets, and robots on every street. It isn’t particularly hard to avoid these enemies with some patience and the right augments, but it’s time-consuming and incredibly annoying. Slowing players’ ability to traverse the world to a crawl at the exact moment the plot finally picks up is a questionable design decision at best, and absolutely crushed my soul as I finally found something to like in the story, then immediately had it soured.
The plot…rarely [gives] any motivation to move forward.
A couple of excursions to locations outside of Prague (I won’t spoil them here) kept things interesting from a visual perspective, though I couldn’t help but find myself wishing that I could spend more time in those locales instead of the drab streets of the city. Prague feels lifeless- a problem that Human Revolution’s city centers shared, but one that it compensated for with visual richness. Its signature black and gold aesthetic, along with the unique look that each city had, from Hengsha’s upper and lower-city architecture to Detroit’s dystopian blend of new-money business complexes and old city gang territory, gave those places life and made them worth exploring. Prague is gray and dull in comparison, and decidedly un-cyberpunk compared to anywhere in the last game. There are no skyscrapers, and nothing that seems particularly high-tech, just rows and rows of two and three-story brick buildings that occasionally have animated posters and TV screens on them. With the exception of a few minor landmarks, the four districts that divide Mankind Divided’s hub world look and feel identical, and gave me little motivation to explore beyond the critical path.
For all my gripes, I do need to say that there is something to like in Mankind Divided. It does very little to improve upon what Human Revolution did well, and in fact feels like a step backward in some areas, but enough of it was compelling to keep me wanting to play. Despite the main story arc’s weakness, much of the dialogue, side quests, and lore remained interesting. The world that Eidos has created for these games is inherently fascinating; a grounded, if not somewhat pessimistic vision of the near future where technology is king. Uncovering the fiction of this world by consuming its media and hacking strangers’ computers is still just as enjoyable as it was in the last game, and offers a welcome distraction from the less impressive writing you’ll experience on the main path. This goes for the gameplay, too. While the mechanics are almost identical to HR’s and the handful of new augments we do get mostly amount to new ways to take dudes down (something Deus Ex already had plenty of), the environments play an equally important part in this kind of stealth game, and getting into places you shouldn’t be by finding hidden passages, talking to the right NPC, or hacking security systems, is still a good bit of fun that very few games replicate. Being entirely lethal or non-lethal is also a bit easier this time around, as ammo for weapons is now much more common, and boss fights have been (almost) entirely removed, allowing the pacifists among us to avoid direct confrontation altogether. If a third Deus Ex comes out and the mechanics still haven’t changed there might be a problem, but Human Revolution was just short enough that I still had an appetite for more of the same gameplay this time around.
From the action-packed first hour to its final credits sequence, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided had me torn. The world around the periphery of the plot and the sense of place are as strong as ever thanks in part to some good writing and visual design. However, the story seriously falters and does away with many of the things that made Human Revolution so good. Mankind Divided is at its best when it’s simply emulating what its predecessor did well, and at its worst wherever it diverges. If you liked the mechanics last time around and care about Adam Jensen’s story, you may well find something to like, but the game drops the ball as often as it catches it, and anybody interested in the overarching plot of the series or hoping for grand improvements over Human Revolution is going to walk away disappointed.