Deus Ex: Mankind Divided Review (PlayStation 4)
With Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Eidos Montreal brought a franchise that was all but defunct back to the forefront of the action-RPG genre. The first entry in the new Deus Ex franchise, still set in the world of the original games, was a fascinating exercise in player choice, not just narratively but from a gameplay standpoint as well. However you wanted to play Human Revolution, you could. It was refreshing, and with Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Eidos Montreal once again shows it has a lot of great ideas of how games in this genre can evolve. It's just a shame some of the narrative choices don't quite match the ideal they were clearly aiming to achieve.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided picks up two years after the conclusion of Human Revolution, with the world still reeling from the "Aug Incident," the day when humans with augmented parts went haywire and blindly attacked anyone and everyone in sight. Like players, Jensen has been out of action since his attempted intervention on Panchaea, the secret ocean installation where the "Aug Incident" was ignited. After Panchaea exploded (the canon ending, though you may have experienced a different one in Human Revolution), the world was left without answers as to why the augmented population turned on the rest of civilization.
Unease and distrust run rampant around the world, and Jensen returns to duty as tensions between the two factions (normal humans and augmented) have escalated to such a point that the world's leaders have begun exiling some augmented civilians to ramshackle cities that are overcrowded, over-policed, and ensure poor quality of life. Due to the actions of extreme groups on both sides of the equation, things are getting worse for the augs. World governments may soon have no choice but to permanently deport thousands of augmented people to their own special cities, provided those in authority don't just start purging them from the streets with little provocation.
Players are given a first-hand look at how the oppression of augmented people looks from the streets of Prague, where Jensen is currently stationed under the employ of Task Force 29. Police give augmented people a hard time simply for existing, routinely checking their documentation and otherwise giving them extreme side-eye as they roam the streets protecting the "normals" from potential harm. Things only get worse when a bomb goes off at a train station in Prague, killing or severely injuring nearly everyone inside. No group outright claims responsibility, but threats are levied against the pro-aug activist group, the Augmented Rights Coalition. Jensen's investigation into the incident isn't high on anyone's priority list but seemingly his own, and with the rest of the world ready and willing to write off augs under the auspices of the Human Restoration Act, it's mostly up to him to bring peace to the clashing ideals.
This is where Deus Ex: Mankind Divided's narrative begins to buckle under the pressure and expectations of the messages the developer is trying to impart on players. Or rather, the messages they aren't relaying, since Mankind Divided goes to great lengths to show how awful both extreme angles are in this rights movement, but does little to offer any kind of actual statement or solution of its own. Even Jensen, who has numerous dialogue options for any given moment, is strangely quiet on how he feels about any of the persecution. While advocating for augmented people, Jensen is about as far removed from the struggles of people in Golem, Prague's aug ghetto, or even those with the proper papers on the streets of Prague.
Yes, the police will still shoot at Jensen if he doesn't toe the line, but that's more because of Mankind Divided's gameplay mechanics than it is players experiencing the kind of machinism many of the NPCs in the game face. Jensen isn't just detached from all the events happening in the game because he's meant to be the player's divining rod either; he's written with so many different perspectives to take, it's hard to figure out which Jensen is the most authentic. In a game with as many personal choices as Deus Ex has, all of which offer branching paths to arrive at a number of different conclusions, Jensen is oddly detached from any real personal stakes in what's happening around the globe. This lack of characterization ill serves the kind of story Eidos Montreal has been so excited about telling. As a result, this controversial allegorical take on civil rights loses much of its impact.
It's fortunate the rest of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is so strong. While the core of the game still boils down to steal versus action, each of these two options has a multitude of approaches each player could take both in how to take on a level and how to experience the overall world. Sneaking and slinking around the shadows is as much a test of skill as it was the last time around, if not more so in Mankind Divided due to how many more people in the world are out to get Jensen. Kicking down the doors and going in guns blazing seems to go against the Deus Ex ideal, but you can definitely do it. The more subtle approach is generally preferred by NPCs you'll interact with though, as the body count is already high enough in Deus Ex's world, and people are generally less happy with you when you keep adding to that tally.
There's a lot of verticality in Mankind Divided's maps too, which makes getting around without anyone noticing that much easier... if you put the time into finding alternate routes. There are plenty of ways to avoid detection, and through some areas we found several different paths that all got us in and out of the same area. That kind of design couldn't have been easy, but it works tremendously well. It can make you feel lost at times, as you might get caught in a circuitous loop of ingress and egress, but just knowing how many different possibilities there are for getting through any given area should make stealth players very happy. What's more, the variety in vantage points works for assault players as well, giving you plenty of unique sightlines and attack points that give you a distinct advantage in potential combat.
Likewise, Jensen will give you a number of different customization options based on his augmented abilities. Since he's almost entirely machine, Jensen's body affords him a number of specialized abilities, provided he's got the programming unlocked. By completing objectives and leveling up, you'll earn Praxis Kits to open up these ability channels. For returning players, many of these abilities --- such as filtered breathing, being able to see through walls, lift heavier objects, or fall without taking damage --- will seem familiar, but Eidos has added in some "overclocked" abilities this time around.
During Jensen's period of inactivity, someone had installed a number of secret modifications into his body. Unlocking them overheats his systems however, so to use one, you've got to completely abandon one core ability in return. These extra powers add a bit more diversity to how you can play as Jensen, but they don't outright break the game in any way. Jensen never feels too overpowered, though a player who's maxed out the stealth-centric abilities might find that particular playthrough much easier than any other path. If you feel like you're being rewarded for using one particular playstyle, that's a good thing though. It makes choosing a given path more substantial and worth the effort you're putting in.
On that note, the side-quests are also very much worth the energy in seeing through to their ends. Not only will you get valuable experience, items and do a bit more world-building, but you'll also get to see more of the people populating this world. While Jensen's personal quest is muddled with mixed messages, these side stories and characters are well-realized short adventures that do much more to flesh out the world than most anything happening in the main narrative. If only the same kind of characterization and personalization was used in the overarching story, it might have come through as a stronger statement. Instead, these optional quests end up being standouts that mix Deus Ex's tried and true gameplay with some adept writing.
In addition to the main game, Mankind Divided also brings with it Breach, a separate mode that takes place on a virtual plane inside the Deus Ex's world. As a Ripper, the odd name given to hackers in this universe, you'll infiltrate data stacks hoping to mine all the golden information for sale on the black market. Why should any of these conglomerates get to keep their secrets hidden? Breach attempts to balance out more of the civil rights story with a barebones narrative, but it doesn't really succeed. It doesn't particularly have to though, as Breach is designed as an asynchronous multiplayer challenge than it is a true narrative-based expansion. That said, there are some elements of overlap with conspiracies hinted at in the main game. This is all completely optional to explore, so it won't change your perspective on Jensen's story, but it will add more flavor to the world he inhabits.
Much of Breach plays identically to Deus Ex proper, though instead of sneaking through massive maps in the hopes of finding out more of the truth, you explore smaller areas with the goal of stealing data. The AI enemies guarding the goods are as challenging and aware as those in the regular game, and often bring about more trouble as they can seemingly spawn in more at any time. Breach presents its own challenges, and could add some longevity to Mankind Divided. Including it for free along with the core game was a smart choice though, as there's not enough meat to make it a true standalone experience.
Few other titles can match the variation Deus Ex: Mankind Divided provides, and there's some truly great lateral thinking involved in getting through some of the game's navigational puzzles. The narrative doesn't strike the chord Eidos was clearly hoping it would, but there's still a great deal of choice in making the game your own --- on top of all the actual customization options you have personally. It would have been something to see all of the story ambitions come together clearly, but even without those elements striking the right balance, Mankind Divided sets a rather high bar for stealth/action-RPGs.
This review was completed with a digital copy of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided provided by the publisher for PlayStation 4.