Deus Ex: Mankind Divided Review
Reviewed on PCAlso available on Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One
You’re at a crime scene, the aftermath of a subway bombing. The place is swarming with Prague police, and you’re very much unwelcome to look around. The problem is that there’s a data disc which your taskforce needs in order to make sense of what happened, and it’s right in the thick of things. Entering this restricted zone means you’re fair game, and you could go in all guns blazing...but these guys are just doing their job. You take out a guard silently with a tranquiliser dart and drag his sleeping body into a nearby office before blacking out the windows. Then you grab a nearby box and fling it to get the attention of another guard. He joins his snoozing compadre. In five minutes, the office is piled high with unconscious officers. You’ve managed to avoid and then disable the cameras, and now there’s only one obstacle left between you and the disc. Unfortunately it’s a guard in huge mech armour, and tranq darts aren’t going to work. You grab his attention and then dash back through a blown-out bookstore, duck under some tarpaulin and emerge near the evidence room whilst the exo-suited patrolman is clanking off in the other direction. You grab the disc, make a run back to the subway entrance, and holster your rifle as you emerge into the sunlight. You don’t want to draw unnecessary attention, after all.
The year is 2029, two years after the events of Human Revolution. Adam Jensen is now working for an Interpol anti-terrorism unit. The war between Augs and Naturals has escalated into outright separation between the two groups - including different doors to walk through, profiling at checkpoints, and restrictions on travel. While the UN discusses options, Jensen has been sent to disrupt a black market deal whilst simultaneously protecting an undercover agent who tipped him off. If the separatist themes cause discomfort, then you aren’t alone. A Twitter spat between the brand manager for Eidos Montreal and a Bioware game designer hit the news earlier this month due to the unfortunately titled “Aug Lives Matter” campaign, apparently a completely coincidental phrase unrelated to the BLM movement in the real world.
Away from the drawn political parallels, Mankind Divided does a sterling job of creating an oppressive, downbeat society populated by miserable people. At times, it’s a little too effective, leaving you desperate to find some small sliver of light amongst the corruption, drug use and down-and-out population. Not long after you begin, the aforementioned bombing occurs, alongside the subsequent investigation and accusations against those potentially responsible, drawing yet more real-world comparisons. This isn’t a happy game, but it is an engrossing one. It’s also densely plotted, almost - but not quite - to the point of being as overwrought as its predecessor. For those of you who, somehow, missed out on Human Revolution: fear not. A twelve-minute recap video will bring you up to speed with the previous game and make you realise how opaque the original's narrative actually was, stacked with layer upon layer of conspiracy. Back at the taskforce’s headquarters, a quick look at the suspect board reveals a staggering number of groups, sub-groups and affiliations, all of which are somehow tied together. Your job is to find out how they all fit in, whilst simultaneously tracking down a mole (in true 24 style, it’s impossible to run a technically advanced governmental department without having at least one bad egg).
To do this, you’ll be assisted by your augmentations which, if you’ve played Human Revolution, you’ll know are significant. Reintroducing a character to an audience in a sequel is a tough task, especially one with RPG elements. How do you retcon all of the superpowers accumulated at the end of the previous instalment? Eidos Montreal have a clever answer: give you more, but make them malfunction if you use too many. Switching between the new experimental augs and the existing ones can offer plenty of new gadgets to play with, such as a wrist-blade and a non-lethal bolt of energy but if you overload yourself with the unstable additions then you risk overheating. To counter this, you can permanently disable some augs you don’t need and restabilise yourself, but make sure you really want to play that card because there’s no way to bring them back once they’re switched off, unless you can find another way around that issue in-game.
The way you play is likely to dictate the augs that you pick. If you want to complete the whole experience without killing a soul, you’re unlikely to need any of the cool but ultimately lethal add-ons available, and instead will probably choose hacking, silent walking and retinal enhancements that let you see through walls to check on guard positions. For the guns blazing types, reticle enhancements are a must. The AI is a lot smarter this time around, actively moving into better positions and trying to smoke you out of cover with a well-placed flashbang or grenade. Guns range from standard pistols to battle rifles, though a stealth build is only going to make use of the tranquiliser and stun guns, leaving plenty of scope for another playthrough which will - aside from the story - feel completely different. A stealthy build does limit you to a certain approach however - takedowns from around corners, getting an individual guard’s attention by chucking a bin in their vicinity before stunning them, and so on. Getting through the game without taking a life is tough, rewarding, but can also be a little repetitive at times - though in this case, the repetition is couched in crackling visuals and interesting missions.
Whichever way you decide to boost Jensen’s abilities, you’ll need to hack things at some point. Whether it’s a door, alarm, laptop or safe, the premise is the same: capture a series of nodes leading to the main registry, without being detected. Each node has a percentage chance of detection which you can reduce through augs or mitigate with various consumables you pick up on your way. If you are detected you have a number of seconds to finish the hack before guards are alerted and the object you’re hacking goes into lockdown for half a minute or so. If you leave after detection but before being completely traced, you lose a hacking point on the object - the number of tries decreases as its security level increases. Extra rewards can be obtained for hacking datastore nodes for more experience and items, but obviously with added risk. It is practically identical to the previous game, but is no less tense, and the palpable relief of hacking a laptop with twenty-three milliseconds to go never outstays its welcome.
Several other mechanics make a return too, including the conversation trees which require you to keep track of a character’s mental state and choose the appropriate responses based on how nervous they’re feeling. Get it right, and you may get a reward. Get it wrong, and things can take a turn for the worse. The story itself follows similar threads - travelling to a target and getting a little bit more information and uncovering another conspiracy, before moving onto the next one and repeating. We won’t go into detail, but there are a couple of twists which we saw coming from a long way off, though the way they’re portrayed is entertaining enough. There are also a few “big” decisions which will leave you torn, and add to the replayability factor. Praxis kits for aug upgrades, hypostims for health and energy cells for using some of your abilities (including takedowns) are all present and unchanged. Inventory management is slick, and moves things around automatically for optimal storage, though you may want to hold off on stocking up on the copious amounts of alcohol available in-game, or you’ll soon run out of space. The mobile market hasn’t been neglected either as QR triangle codes can be picked up in-game and scanned on your phone app to unlock art, rewards and more - however, we were unable to get any of these to work during play. Hopefully this will be resolved for launch.
Elias Toufexis’ scratchy monotone once again conveys Jensen’s near-emotionless dialogue, but it somehow works thanks to the contrast with the rest of the hyperactive cast running the gamut from snarling British merc to warm and fuzzy psychologist, via a tech hyped up on caffeine and a disgruntled South African pilot. The voice cast is excellent, making up for the character models which aren’t a huge improvement on the previous game, with slightly dodgy lip-synching and wild gesturing. Otherwise the visuals are superb, a glossy, crisp neon-tinged setting, dripping with futuretech and ambient atmospherics, whether it’s the bonkers conspiracy theorist radio presenter who makes Rush Limbaugh look like Ed Murrow, the Private Eye-style newspapers reporting on governmental hypocrisy, or the ever present newsreader Eliza Cassan who returns from Human Revolution with even less empathy whilst reporting the “facts”. This is all supported by wonderfully dark electronica which pumps downbeat synths into your face at different tempos, dependent on whether you’re wandering through your offices or carelessly triggering an alarm.
The universe is familiar, but tactile. Apartments are filled with things to play with and pick up, and areas are littered with alternative entry points to destinations. Want to avoid paying a bribe to get through a checkpoint? Maybe there’s a vent hidden behind a skip - but don’t forget to buy the aug that will let you move it first. Pocket secretaries, the electronic equivalent of a confessional, make a return and aside from garnering information about the world and your environment, they also provide you with codes to doors, safes and anything else that normal people would never commit to recording digitally. Maybe they’ll help you get into that server room you spotted earlier... It feels like you have a lot more agency in the way you can tackle missions, almost approaching that of the original game. You can also craft one-hit items from parts you'll find scattered around, including instahack multi-tools, mines, energy packs and more. Perhaps you want to use these parts to upgrade your weapons by increasing their ammo capacity - there are plentiful options, all of which increase the game's replayability. Thankfully, the annoyances of headshots with tranq darts counting as "kills" and the controversial "no alternative but to eliminate" boss fights of the previous game have both been jettisoned.
Like Human Revolution, performance on PC can be sketchy at times. Despite running on a solid rig with far higher specs than the minimum recommended, initial load times were borderline laughable, memory usage in-game dictated that practically no background apps were running, and the transition between areas on the metro brings back the elevator nightmares of Mass Effect, albeit with more interesting camera angles. However, once you do address the other tasks on your system you’ll find that play itself is very smooth, with only cutscenes causing jitters here and there.
This time around Eidos Montreal have included a second play mode: Breach. Stripped to its core elements, you’re a Ripper (read: hacker) dumped into a server, tasked with locating all data points on a map, downloading their content and then getting out. AI robots and turrets are on hand to dish out laser punishment, while other objectives may include taking out a number of enemies as well as retrieving data, or gathering a number of data fragments to progress a particular mission story. You gain experience for each server you hack, as well as rewards in the form of credits, Praxis kits and modifiers. This last element allow you to add bonuses to start each breach with, or counteract penalty modifiers set by the system automatically at the start of some breaches. Whilst there are several intriguing ideas here, they’re diminished by the looming spectre of microtransactions which ask you to pay for “premium” items with chipsets, i.e. real-world cash. Rare booster packs, premium weapons, skins and more are all waiting to be bought, as the AI will keep reminding you as you progress.
Whilst not a multiplayer mode, Breach does let you compare your progress with other Rippers in terms of time attack and points accrued. Challenges can also be set to other players; they get three tries to win a booster pack, but you'll be rewarded if they lose. You can also try and beat Challenges yourself, by scoring more than the AI’s target. Ultimately though, the Breach missions themselves are fairly samey and the optional story elements feel like another attempt to get you to part with your cash. It’s good for an occasional blast, but there is simply not enough variety in the server maps to hold your attention for long.
It’s clear that criticisms of the previous game have been taken onboard, and the end result is a slick slice of oppressive storytelling, which projects a number of real-world fears onto a digital canvas. The maps aren’t big, but they are meaty. You’ll never feel totally lost thanks to the objective waymarkers, but you have plenty of scope for how to get there. Side quests are abundant, and never far enough away from your main goal that they feel like a chore. Yet for all the improvements, additions and tweaks, Mankind Divided never feels like a huge step forward. There is plenty to do, but it’s essentially the same game mechanics layered with sparkling gloss. If you’re new to the series, it’ll be a revolution. If you’ve played the previous instalment it’ll simply feel like an evolution: a familiar, tightly presented, entertaining experience that will leave you satisfied but asking for a little more from its makers when the fifth instalment hits.