Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, or talking shit about a game I love

This piece contains major spoilers for Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Read at your own discretion.

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I take no pleasure in stating what I’m about to say. As a matter of fact, I can only type these words while heaving a long, hearty sigh:

Almost every individual aspect of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is worse than Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

I know. I’m sorry.

Let me throw in the biggest official disclaimer I can, though – I still love Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. It is nowhere approaching what I would consider a bad game. It’s not even an average game. Despite the long list of critiques I’ll go through, I think Mankind Divided is an excellent game. I swear.

However, after finishing it three times and spending a total of about 60-80 hours with it (and planning to play it much, much more), I must use its predecessor as a basis for comparison when I say it’s worse in almost every aspect.

The story is worse.

The characters aren’t as interesting.

The writing isn’t as intriguing or sharp.

The visual design is way more average than I was expecting.

The amount of telling instead of showing is embarrassing.

The story’s pacing is odd.

The dungeon-type missions aren’t as involved or interesting.

(On a really nit-picky note — the title screen and opening credits sequence are also below average compared to Human Revolution’s)

The only aspects Mankind Divided excels at that its predecessor didn’t are the control mechanics and the side missions.

Yep. That’s it.

To put the bottom line out there early: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s story feels like a completely inconsequential second act in a trilogy. It feels like an average stepping stone working its way up to something bigger to come. This is especially obtuse considering the tough race war subject matter it attempts to provide social commentary on.

Maybe if I’m lucky they’ll pull that quote for the box art on the inevitable Game of the Year edition later.

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There’s a chance I could be holding the bar too high when playing this game. After all, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger fan of Deus Ex: Human Revolution than me. I’ve played it at least 20 times. Probably more. I’ve purchased it three times. I wrote a 6-part blog series about it. I have a fucking half-sleeve tattoo inspired by its design, for crying out loud. In all actuality, there’s probably no way Mankind Divided even stood a chance of being better than Human Revolution for me. But having high expectations doesn’t discount my thoughts about it.

I’m more than certain for the average gamer who played through Human Revolution once and liked it, Mankind Divided will be a great sequel for them. Like I said, I think this is a really good game. But measured by its individual facets, it simply doesn’t come close to Human Revolution.

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When initial marketing started rolling out for Mankind Divided, developer Eidos Montreal set up what they called a “mechanical apartheid” for the story – “apartheid” literally being a South African term coined for non-white oppression. Some took issue with their use of the word in this context for marketing. To be honest, I didn’t really care, but I understand what it’s about.

Basically what Mankind Divided sets up is a story about non-augmented people (Naturals) versus augmented people (Augs) in a direly oppressive state. In Human Revolution’s story, human enhancement (by means of implanting cybernetics into human bodies) was on the rise. As expected, it was met with controversy. Some enhancements were obvious, such as artificial limbs with extra capabilities. Series protagonist Adam Jensen himself has military-grade arms that shoot explosive beads in a circle around him — not exactly the prosthetic you want everyone on the street having.

Other augmentations are less noticeable –- discrete neural implants that aid in reaction timing, perception and focus.

At the end of Human Revolution’s story, a human augmentation technology pioneer activated a kill switch that altered neural chips in augmented people and drove them insane. Many spiraled into violent sprees. They no longer had control over their augmentations and fell mercy to their innermost savage instincts. This is the pivotal moment that kicked off the mechanical apartheid — thousands dying at the synthetic hands of augmented people. They could no longer be trusted and society began to cast them down.

In the two years between Human Revolution and Mankind Divided, the upper class yuppies who could afford these fancy robot body parts have now sunk to the lowest class and Naturals are the new upper class. Augs must continually take a drug called Neuropozyne to help their bodies cope with robotic implants. As it turns out Neuropozyne is in high demand and short supply, which causes tension among the Augs themselves.

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The stench of an artificial race war wafts around the game as it attempts to make commentary on how police brutality is high on Augs. As a means of protection, entire rundown ghettos are constructed as aid zones for them. Several businesses in Mankind Divided have separate Aug Entrances and Human Entrances much like in America’s pre-civil rights era. I think I’d be able to take this attempt at commentary more seriously if it weren’t a simple class-status flip. How edgy — the new lower class used to be the upper class. Innovative.

Some of the marketing even featured a banner reading “Aug Lives Matter” ripped straight from today’s Black Lives Matter movement. Mankind Divided came under fire for this decision to use current events as marketing just before the game launched.

Joke’s on them though, because despite Eidos Montreal’s attempts to make social issues a big focus in Mankind Divided, it just never feels effective.

While playing as Jensen, the worst discrimination I faced was having police unexpectedly stop him to check his identification papers every once in a while. After about a 10-second pause for the officer to look his papers over, Jensen is back on his way to whatever mission he’s going on. Occasionally people will mutter Aug slurs to him, as well. My favorite is “clank.”

Jeez, that’s some rough social commentary right there. If they wanted to really drive it home they probably should’ve just had police shoot and kill Jensen for no reason randomly throughout the game. That would’ve been far more impactful than checking his papers (and never finding anything wrong with them) a handful of times over a 30-hour campaign.

It’s hard to feel threatened when I’m playing as a character who has about three guns on him at any given time, a cloaking mechanism, a shield and arms that shoot explosive blades, bombs and tranquilizing taser rounds.

Keep in mind here Deus Ex’s previous title, Human Revolution, didn’t set the bar very high for storytelling. It was passable, and better than Mankind Divided’s, but still pretty average.

In it, Jensen works as head of security (after resigning from SWAT) for Sarif Industries – one of the leading human augmentation corporations at the time. Jensen’s ex-girlfriend Megan Reed is the head scientist for Sarif and she’s due to present her breakthrough augmentation research to congress at the beginning of the game.

On the night of their flight out from Detroit to Washington DC, Sarif Industries is attacked, and Megan and her core science team (consisting of her and four other scientists) are kidnapped and forced to work off-site to develop the kill switch that ends up driving the augmented people insane.

Human Revolution’s entire plot is about Jensen following up any leads he can on the mercenary team who took Megan and rescuing them.

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Here’s where stakes for Jensen lay:

  1. This is the company he works for, so he’s obligated to find the scientists.
  2. His ex-girlfriend is the highest priority and they might still be involved, so he’s more eager to save her.
  3. Megan basically got him hired at Sarif Industries, so on a professional level he’s driven to find her.
  4. Because Jensen is heavily augmented (not by choice, but to save his life after the attack) he owes it to Augs to rescue the science team to forward their work in human enhancement.

Mankind Divided doesn’t have any stakes that come close to this. Perhaps the most annoying thing about Mankind Divided’s story is that Adam Jensen has very little stake in it at all. Eidos Montreal literally could’ve replaced Jensen with any character in Mankind Divided and the stakes would’ve remained the same. He has no consequence for the story. He serves no greater purpose than an investigative dog sniffing through clues.

Most of the reason for his inconsequential nature is the fact that Eidos Montreal seemed perfectly happy to wipe nearly every story fragment away from the previous game — except the violent kill switch Aug incident. Perhaps they were trying to take a page out of Mass Effect’s book? Well what they didn’t learn from Bioware is when you wash your hands clean from a decent story and character roster from the first game, you need to completely replace it with an equally strong story and roster in the second game. Mass Effect 2 accomplished this. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided does not.

Human Revolution had a core cast of seven characters – Adam Jensen (main character), David Sarif (his boss), Megan Reed (ex-girlfriend/kidnapped scientist), Faridah Malik (Jensen’s pilot), Francis Pritchard (Jensen’s mission handler), Eliza Cassan (illuminati news anchor) and Bill Taggart (anti-aug antagonist). Even less prevalent support characters, such as Hugh Darrow (Aug research pioneer), Tong Si Hung (Triad boss) and Wayne Hass (police station clerk) are memorable.

Only four of those characters return and two of them have such small, inconsequential roles, they don’t impact the story much, if at all.

Megan Reed, who served as the main drive of Human Revolution’s story, shows up to say a handful of sentences in an audio log on an optional quest. Given that her relationship and involvement in the kill switch incident weren’t resolved between her and Jensen at the end of Human Revolution makes the decision to nearly cut her out of the game even more baffling.

Mankind Divided’s script doesn’t offer enough flavor or nuance to appreciate nearly any character in it. A lot of this has to do with the fact that almost every main character is brand new and we’re told (not shown) that Jensen is acquainted with them. Each character is also written with such furrowed brow, boring intensity that the story rarely gets lifted with any snappy light-hearted notes. The only new character who actually has character is Smiley Fletcher, a hilarious eccentric forensics lead with Jensen’s task force.

Another new character, Alex Vega, is introduced as someone with whom Adam has been working for six months. She has ties to an underground activist group bent on exposing the illuminati and finding whose strings they’re pulling.

The game sets up a binary choice system between her and Adam’s boss at Interpol, Director Miller, where a few times during the game players must choose to support Alex or Miller. Maybe Jensen will give encrypted data to Alex and not tell Miller about it. Maybe Jensen will follow one of Miller’s leads for a mission instead of tracking down an assignment for Alex.

The problem here is Miller doesn’t know about Alex, so the stakes are diminished. If I chose to have Jensen go against Miller’s wishes to pursue a lead from Alex, I knew in the back of my mind that the game would find a way to iron it out because Miller doesn’t know about Alex. And Miller is Jensen’s actual boss, where Alex is simply a partner. By the end of the game Miller and Alex still don’t know each other.

The only good thing to come from this system is a point in the game where Jensen has limited time and can only choose between one of two mission between them. It’s rare that a big-budget, triple-A game pushes a player into a situation where they can’t solve everything. (And just as a heads up, Alex’s mission here is probably the best mission in the game).

Another problem with the binary trust system is the game opening with a Miller Interpol mission. This led me to believe that Jensen was allied strongly with Miller. However, by the end of the game (no matter with whom you choose to trust more) it closes with Adam and Alex. If he were meant to be loyal to Alex the whole time it would’ve made more sense to open the game with a mission for her, so I could understand their relationship and how they work together better than just having the game tell me they’ve been cohorts for six months. To be frank, Alex’s introduction in Mankind Divided is so weak, I didn’t feel compelled to side with her anyway.

So here I am stuck in a game asking me to choose repeatedly between two characters. And I don’t really care about either of them.

If Alex were replaced with any side character from Human Revolution, I would’ve felt compelled to work with her more. And their relationship would’ve already been established. Faridah Malik and Frank Pritchard are two of my favorite companions from Human Revolution that could’ve returned. I realize that it’s possible for Malik to die in the previous game, but Eidos Montreal could’ve made her survival the canon story. After all, they brought Jensen back from floating in the Arctic Ocean instead of killing him off like they did the rest of Human Revolution.

I just don’t understand why Eidos Montreal seemed so eager to wash its hands of all the established characters and story from the previous game. While they were at it they should’ve just replaced Jensen with a new protagonist because as I mentioned before, he has very little personal stake here. Every mission he does is just following a lead someone tells him to. Anyone could be doing that.

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What’s even more bizarre is how poorly Mankind Divided sets up its central conflict for the game.

In Human Revolution, the central antagonists strike in the first hour. We meet Jensen and Megan’s science team and then three distinct mercenary leaders kidnap them.

All right. Good. We have our three main bad guys right here.

Sure, the bad guys aren’t characterized very well (and truly aren’t the real final villain) but we at least know who they are. That way as we work our way through the game we understand the pacing as we eliminate each boss. By the time the second bad guy (or woman in its case) is dead, for example, we suspect we’re roughly 60-70 percent through the game.

Mankind Divided starts off with an unknown entity bombing a train station in Prague. This might seem like high stakes, but half the game is Jensen working the case to figure out who bombed it. And every time Jensen comes up with a solid lead at least one side character completely refutes the lead.

This is like Red Tape: the video game.

It makes it difficult to determine how far along you are in the story. And even when you meet the person who ends up being the final boss (several hours into the game — far too long) Mankind Divided doesn’t even nail him down as the main antagonist. The ambiguity makes it awfully difficult to place the ultimate blame on anyone.

The eye-rolling catch here is that because technically the illuminati are behind all the conflicts in Deus Ex, the developers could say “Well, giving Jensen the runaround on solving the station bombing is kind of the point of the game as that’s what the illuminati would want him to do,” to protect themselves. But if they pull that shit in the future I will only pretend to be mad and still buy and play all their games.

Because of it’s uneven conflict setup, Mankind Divided is the kind of game that’s paced in a way where I had no idea I was even on the final mission until the credits were rolling. If it had set up the final boss as a definite entity to be feared from the beginning instead of introducing him so late and having side characters dispute his legitimacy for the whole game, it would’ve felt much better paced.

Another interesting aspect is the game’s final objective hinging on Jensen’s ability to protect Nathaniel Brown, an influential activist, at a convention. The problem? Brown is introduced about an hour before the end of the game. He’s briefly discussed a few times among side characters earlier, but he’s never officially shown until almost the end.

Even Human Revolution was smart enough to handle this better with a different character. Bill Taggard, anti-Aug activist, was specifically introduced with an unskippable conversation with Jensen early on in the game. In a short exchange, we understand who he is, his intent, his irritating (in a good way) power over Jensen and his setup as an antagonist. If Brown had been introduced in this way early on in Mankind Divided, I would’ve better understood his stakes in the story and felt more compelled to carry out my duty to protect him.

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Even though I mentioned earlier that Mankind Divided’s side quests are great — many of them are left open at the end of the game. Not in a good way.

Jensen discovers he has new augmentations implanted that his old boss Sarif never told him about. Understandably, he calls Sarif to figure out why the extra augs are there. Sarif doesn’t know, but the mystery quest opens for Jensen to get to the bottom of it. But by the end of the game, it’s still never established where the augmentations came from.

Koller, who serves as Jensen’s augmentation medic In Mankind Divided, is strongly introduced then visited one more time later. After that he’s never seen nor mentioned again for the last half of the game. He brings up a personal conflict about a mafia organizations’ local leader being secretly augmented and seeing Koller for treatment. Sounds intriguing until the plotline ends with that conversation.

During other parts of the game, Jensen finds concrete evidence that people (the illuminati?) are keeping tabs on him, but never bothers to mention it to anyone nor even acknowledge it. I don’t know about you, but if I found a storage locker full of pictures of me and my associates and a safe with my biological data in it, I’d be asking someone about it.

It’s entirely possible that Eidos Montreal is saving wrap-ups for DLC later. If that’s the case, it’s a pretty big dick move to tease story segments then ask players to pay for additional missions later to wrap them up. Only time will tell.

Overall the entire story aspect of Mankind Divided felt incredibly weak to me. And considering the 5-year gap between games, it only makes its half-baked ideas seem more confusing. Here’s hoping it’s not another 5 years for a sequel. Although if the inevitable next Deus Ex somehow ties everything up, I’ll feel better, but it won’t save Mankind Divided from feeling like one giant inconsequential side quest on the path to meatier objectives.

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Story aside, the aspect that cuts me the deepest on its mediocrity is Mankind Divided’s visual design. In its defense, it is chasing after a slightly different aesthetic than its predecessor. Human Revolution felt like every detail of every stitch of every environment was borne from a single creative entity. Of course, that entity was Art Director Jonathan Jacques-Belletete and his concept artists.

Jacques-Belletete has moved up to Executive Art Director in Mankind Divided and Martin Dubaeu has moved into the role of regular Art Director. I’m not exactly sure what this means for the roles they play, though. I don’t know if Dubeau was more hands-on with the design and Jacques-Belletete oversaw it all? I’m not sure.

The only thing I know is not a single environment in Mankind Divided is as compelling as anything in Human Revolution.

Mankind Divided reaches for a more realistic contemporary aesthetic. This is worth an applause, seeing as it approaches a cityscape in a much more reasonable way. I mentioned Human Revolution felt built from the ground up at once; Mankind Divided’s base city of Prague feels like a real contemporary city with old architecture sitting next to futuristic architecture. This is how cities evolve, after all. As time progresses, buildings are refurbished or rebuilt one at a time. Prague exemplifies this. An old stone building sits next to a building with LED panels covering its façade. A nightclub with futuristic holographic models on its sidewalk is pushed back in an old cobblestone-lined court. Although I understand this more lucrative take, it makes for far less memorable environments.

(As a side-note I’m curious as to why Eidos Montreal picked Prague out of every location they could possible choose to base a game in the world?)

Counter that with the several areas in Human Revolution left major impressions on me:

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David Sarif’s office — with its giant black and gold orb lamps hanging from the ceiling.

FEMA’s basement hallway — with shelves of deactivated Box Guards lining the room as gold-toned overhead lights abruptly phased on.

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Tai Yong Medical – with its bright green and wood-paneled hallways enclosed with large faceted windows.

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Zhao’s office – with its empty picture frames and eerily beautiful red polygonal sculptures.

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LIMB Clinics – with their beautiful glowing partitioned waiting rooms.

Namir’s boss area – with its moving skinless human figures on display.

Megan Reed’s research suite – where every item in it is bleached white.

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These areas were all unique and alluring. They swelled with beauty as their importance heightened over the course of the game.

When it comes to Mankind Divided, not a single area in it meets or exceeds any of my favorite areas of Human Revolution. What a shame. It’s almost like the art directors couldn’t help themselves but cram all their brilliant ideas into Human Revolution. I wish they’d saved some for the sequel now.

Mankind Divided still has an identity and believability about it, but it’s far less unique. If I’d never played Human Revolution and turned on Mankind Divided, there’s a solid chance I wouldn’t recognize it as a Deus Ex game.

Thank goodness the minute-to-minute gameplay is engaging and solid enough to keep me invested.

Gameplay is truly where Mankind Divided (and Human Revolution before it) shines for me. Eidos Montreal kept its pillars-of-gameplay approach to level design true and introduced new control schemes for any type of player to succeed.

Human Revolution claimed it could be played as a stealth game, a shooter or a hacking game. The problem is its single control layout and steep combat difficulty didn’t lend itself to aggressive players. Mankind Divided fixes that by quickening the overall pace and offering control schemes that skew more to traditional cover-shooters if players should choose to go that route. And the schemes can be changed at any point in the game.

For me the fun of Deus Ex has never been in action, explosions and shootouts, though. I prefer to strike like a snake if I strike at all. Sneak in. Sneak out. Leave everyone I can untouched as much as possible. Deus Ex has my favorite brand of stealthy, predatory gameplay.

When tasked with anything in Mankind Divided, I always prefer to holster my weapons and search for the stealthy air duct route. There’s a certain satisfaction that comes with infiltrating corporate storage vaults in a bank that boasts itself as the most secure bank on the planet without a single person knowing I did it. Deus Ex is both therapeutic and rewarding for me in this way.

Mankind Divided also has a certain James Bond and Mission Impossible flavor about it that Human Revolution lacked. The aforementioned bank heist is one example. Another involves mingling among guests at a ritzy convention party and plotting how to take several guards down without anyone noticing. Moments such as those really injected a suave new attitude into otherwise status quo gameplay.

Mankind Divided, as with Human Revolution, is the kind of game I can sit and play for 6-8 hours in one chunk with little exhaustion or frustration. It puts me into a state that’s simultaneously relaxed and engaged with intelligent exploration and problem solving. Not many games keep me in this sweet spot, and I’m glad I can count on Eidos Montreal to serve it up for me.

As rare as it is for me to find a game this rewarding, (Alert: back-handed compliment incoming…) even rarer is the sequel that I find below average to its predecessor in nearly every regard that I still love and enjoy playing. If that doesn’t speak to the quality of gameplay here, I don’t know what else can.

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With the same sigh I opened this critique with, I must reiterate that I find Deus Ex: Mankind Divided a somewhat disappointing game. I do still love it, have invested 60-80 hours in it, and will most definitely play it several more times to fully master each of its pillars of gameplay. But in regards to its stellar predecessor Human Revolution, I can’t even pretend to act as if this game is better. Human Revolution is superior in almost every way, but I still give Mankind Divided a hearty recommendation.

If you played Human Revolution and liked it, Mankind Divided will give you all those same feelings of enjoyment. Even if you didn’t like Human Revolution, but were intrigued by it, Mankind Divided streamlines its controls so well that it’s easy to get onboard with.

With Eidos Montreal being so quick to swap major characters, conflicts and entities for new ones in Mankind Divided, I can only remain hopeful that they know what they’re doing for future sequels. And no matter how they turn out, I’m sure I’ll still play the hell out of them.

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