Exploring Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s massive new cyberpunk world

We go hands-on and find a sequel that’s deeper and darker

It took Jean-François Dugas nearly two months to agree to work on Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It wasn’t because he had no interest in the project; in fact, the original Deus Ex is one of his favorite games, and it inspired him to get into game design. That was the problem. “I was scared to death” he says. “It’s not just making a game; it’s trying to revive Deus Ex.” The original game, directed by legendary designer Warren Spector, launched in 2000, and helped set the standard for action role-playing games.

Even well into the project Dugas, who served as game director, had his doubts. The challenge was only made greater by the fact that it would be the first game from a brand-new studio, Eidos Montreal, founded in 2007. The first vertical slice the team created — a proof-of-concept demo meant to highlight key features — was “awful” in his opinion. “It showed promise,” he says, “but it was terrible.” It had many of the elements that made it into the final product, but they weren’t gelling, so it wasn’t fun to play. The team spent the next five months building a new version, figuring out how all of the game’s different systems — stealth, action, story, etc. — could fit together. When they showed the new demo to players, the positive feedback was immediate. “At that moment we knew we had the recipe,” he says.

Now they have to do it again.

Human Revolution went on to be both a commercial and critical hit in 2011; its uniquely stylish take on cyberpunk, combined with wide-open gameplay that let you approach problems in different ways, made it a game that felt like a proper successor to the beloved original. But it was also something new and distinct, with a flavor that was its own. The team is now working on a sequel, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, due to launch next year.

“For the first game, we were lucky to be a little bit naive,” Dugas explains.”This time around, since we know what it takes, what you need is courage. It’s just courage. Because the task is enormous.”

Mankind Divided takes place two years after Human Revolution (which itself was a prequel, set 25 years before the original Deus Ex). It once again stars augmented protagonist Adam Jensen, but much has changed in the time between the two games. At the end of Human Revolution, augmented humans — people with technological add ons that can often make them seem superhuman — went haywire, resulting in a massacre that left the rest of the population weary of the dangers of human augmentation. Human Revolution was set during a period described as the "cyber renaissance," a time when humanity was just realizing the possibilities of this burgeoning technology. Mankind Divided, meanwhile, is more like going back to the Dark Ages; augmented humans now live like outcasts, shuttered into ghettos away from the rest of society.

Story aside, Mankind Divided doesn’t stray too far from the formula laid down by Human Revolution. You still play as Jensen — now working for an anti-terrorist organization — using crazy augmentations to infiltrate areas and kill lots of bad guys. The difference is that Mankind Divided feels bigger, with more layers to dig through. "It really is what we did in Human Revolution, but plus plus," says executive art director Jonathan Jacques Belletête.

This extends to virtually every aspect of the game. The areas you’ll explore feel more dense, with more things to do and places to go. During one portion of the game, which takes place in a grimy, rainy Prague slum, you’re tasked with infiltrating an old theater. Figuring out how to get inside is a problem with multiple solutions. The outside area is teeming with armed guards, including snipers on the roofs and a robot that looks like a cross between the ED-209 from the original Robocop and an AT-ST. On first inspection, it seems like an impossible task.

During a hands-on demo I tried multiple times to get in the front door. I used guns to get rid of guards, sound dampeners so that my mechanical legs were quiet when I ran, and even a cloaking feature so that I was literally invisible for brief periods. But I kept dying, over and over. Eventually, I gave up and decided to do some exploration. In a back alley I found a ladder that provided a clear view of the roof, where I could take out the pesky snipers with a tranquilizer (you don’t always have to kill in Deus Ex). I was then able to climb onto the roof, hack a security camera so I wouldn’t be spotted, and find a skylight I could slip down into. That was my ticket — from there I could pick off the guards inside without being seen, before delving deeper into the building.

Discovering a new path is thrilling. Clearly I’m not good at going the direct route, but Mankind Divided provides multiple options. If I hadn’t gone up the ladder, I could’ve snuck up to the roof using a cherry picker on the other side of the building. Or I could have turned on my shield and tried to shoot my way in. Once inside I kept discovering new paths through the theater; there were windows to jump through, hidden areas under the stage, and a locked back door that could be hacked if you weren’t spotted. The myriad options at your disposal depend somewhat on how you customize your character — I had access to premade load-outs with a focus on stealth and combat — but they mean that players will all have a different experience depending on how they like to play. "In terms of possibilities, I think there is more richness and there is more depth," Dugas says of the sequel.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

This flexibility extends to the storytelling. While I didn’t get to try out this aspect of the game myself — in fact, the Prague demo had the narrative bits ripped out to focus on gameplay — the team says that your choices will play a much bigger role in Mankind Divided. Human Revolution featured moments of choice, but the impact on the overall story was minimal; things played out pretty much the same no matter what you did, with only minor variations. "We wanted to push that even further and have it so the decisions you’re making at the beginning could totally change things," explains Mary DeMarle, executive narrative director on the game. "You could meet a character early on, and depending on how you deal with that character, they may go away, but they may come back and that could totally alter something farther down the line."

"There is more richness and there is more depth."

Before working on the new Deus Ex games, DeMarle served as a writer on the third and fourth Myst games, as well as Homeworld 2, so she knows what it’s like to tackle an existing, beloved property. "At some points it’s daunting because you have to really understand the universe that you’re building in," she says. "Especially with something like Deus Ex, where you have fans who are so in love with the universe, and anything you do they’re looking at you like ‘How dare you!’ There’s always that little fear inside of you. At some point you have to just shut out those voices from outside."

With Human Revolution, DeMarle and the narrative team had a bit of breathing room because the game was set so far before the original Deus Ex. There was time and space to build something totally new within the existing universe. But with Mankind Divided, and any other sequels that may follow, that space is shrinking. "With the sequel, we now have to stay true to what we were building," she says, "but we also have to be aware that we’re getting closer and closer to the established future."

Like the gameplay, one of the key ideas behind the story this time around is that it has more depth. Part of DeMarle’s job is working with every department to make sure that the narrative elements not only remain consistent throughout the game, but are also infused in every aspect, whether it’s art, cinematics, or gameplay. Often those other departments influence the story. For example, a concept artist might paint a really cool movie poster to put on a wall in Prague, and a writer will try to work that movie into the dialogue or a side mission.

Those artists play a big role in how the story is conveyed. Environmental storytelling — using the world itself to tell part of the story, without the help of dialogue or cutscenes — was a huge part of Human Revolution. One of the most iconic locations in that game was Jensen’s apartment, which you could explore to learn more about the character. You could see trinkets that hinted at his interests, while the dead plants and piles of unopened cardboard boxes revealed how he had spent the past six months struggling with his new augments. "During production I called it the ‘Adam Museum,’ because that’s what it is," art director Belletête says. "The game doesn’t tell you anything, you walk around and look at things and you learn about Adam’s life just by looking."

With Mankind Divided, the idea is to extend that to the rest of the world. "We try — at different degrees — to treat all of the environments that way," Belletête explains. "If you do that, and if you always make the effort even with less important environments, they will look like more than just video game environments." Even though the Prague I explored was a demo area without the normal story elements holding it together, I could still get a sense of the world just by looking around. Venturing into a decrepit bathroom down a flight of grimy steps I could see pill bottles and pizza boxes everywhere; a nearby alley was plastered with torn, old posters for ballets and stage shows that featured in the theater during better days. It wasn’t always subtle — scribbled on one wall was graffiti that said "Do not augment!" — but this was clearly a slum, home to desperate people.

The attention to detail in the game is staggering. Mankind Divided is launching on a newer generation of hardware than its predecessor, and is powered by a new game engine, called the Dawn Engine. So while it features a similar style as Human Revolution — though with a more muted color palette to go along with the darker themes — it feels richer and more detailed. In addition to Prague, I also played through a tutorial segment set in an unfinished luxury hotel in Dubai. Like Prague, it was absolutely packed with detail; abandoned toolboxes sat on top of piles of unused steel beams, and tucked away areas were littered with debris from the junkies who took residence when construction stopped. You could see specks of sand floating in the breeze. It felt like a real place, but also distinctly Deus Ex. "There’s lots of clutter in the game," Belletête says. "People are very, very messy in the Deus Ex universe, I don’t know why." Though Prague and Dubai are about as disparate as two cities can be, the art style established in Human Revolution helps link them together.

The detail extends to other aspects of the game, most notably the weapons. From the pause menu, you can zoom in and scan a gun from any angle, getting close enough to read the brand name and see the wear marks on the handle. Jensen’s various augmentations are similarly beautiful to look at. The most impressive thing I saw during my time with the game was the new Titan Shield augmentation, which encases Jensen in a blocky, black body shield that makes him look like a modern art sculpture (albeit one that’s well armed). It’s a technology that feels out there, but also perfectly at home in a game like Deus Ex.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided concept art

All of these facets combine to make Mankind Divided’s fiction more believable. "It’s a game where every single little detail is as big as the big picture," explains Belletête. And those seemingly disparate features — the serial number on a gun, a poster in a back alley, a line of dialogue you may never hear — all need to work together. "When you’re playing a game, everything in that game is telling you a story," adds DeMarle. "And if that story is contradicting itself it leads to a very confused experience." Because of that, all of these elements are carefully thought out. The ground isn’t just covered in litter to make it look cool, it’s done for a purpose. "No matter what we do on this franchise, whether it’s art or story or gameplay, there’s always a really big reason why we do it," Belletête says.

Whether or not Eidos Montreal has achieved this harmony between gameplay, story, and art, remains to be seen, of course. Mankind Divided is still in development, and there’s a chance that the final product won’t work as well as it did during my demo. But based on the two sections I played, Mankind Divided definitely has the right elements in place. I completed the Prague level half a dozen times, and each time I took a different path, used different tools, and found new places that told me more about this universe. If I went back to play it again now, I’d probably find even more. Even the tutorial section had multiple routes, letting you try out different tactics before you even know the control scheme. Human Revolution laid a solid foundation, and Mankind Divided is on the right track to take that idea even further.

For Dugas, it’s further evidence that he made the right choice all those years ago. "The question that I asked myself was, ‘Can I bring something to the franchise? Can I bring a voice, can I bring something unique?’ And I felt that I could bring something, whether it’s what people expect or not.

"I never looked back."

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided launches February 23rd on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One

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