Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a competent game in a confusing world

I'm not always sure what's happening, but I think I like it

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In Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, I am a second-class citizen in a world that once celebrated my existence. I am a dryly sardonic protector of the weak in a world controlled by corporate interests. I also have giant blades in my arms, have dedicated my life to fighting the Illuminati, and regularly pause during life-or-death missions in order to read my enemies’ email. The entire game hinges on being able to navigate these tensions: between pulp and serious social commentary, between pushing players out of their comfort zones and letting them enjoy the dream logic of video games. In some places, it nails that balance perfectly. In others, it struggles.

Mankind Divided is the fourth major installment in the Deus Ex series, taking place shortly after 2011’s Human Revolution. The original Deus Ex, set in 2052 and published in 2000, was based on the idea that all (or at least all ‘90s right-wing) conspiracy theories were true, including a worldwide UN takeover, black helicopters, and Area 51. It was beloved for both the openness of its gameplay and for its exaggerated spin on real-world political issues like surveillance and domestic terrorism, peppered with cultural references that ranged from French situationists to G.K. Chesterton.

Minor spoilers for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided ahead.

In the years since, the series has evolved into a meditation on transhumanism, set in the relatively near future of the late 2020s. In Human Revolution, a former Detroit cop named Adam Jensen plumbs a sinister plot behind “augmentations” — advanced implants and prosthetics that enhance users’ bodies and minds. Adam is back as your protagonist in Mankind Divided, but in a darker world. Where mechanical enhancement was controversial but hugely popular in Human Revolution, “augs” are now universally feared and hated, after a hack sent them on a global killing spree. Most of the game is set in Prague, where they’ve been officially stripped of legal rights and are in constant danger of being shipped off to a slum nicknamed “Golem City.” The rest of the world is threatening to follow suit, and Adam has joined an Interpol anti-terrorism task force that may be related to the Illuminati.

Mechanically, Mankind Divided follows closely in the very competent footsteps of Human Revolution. It’s primarily a first-person game with a third-person cover system, a blend of shooting, stealth, hacking, exploration, and conversation. In addition to traditional lethal and non-lethal weapons, Adam has augmentations that range from increased strength and temporary invisibility to emotional intelligence tools that activate during conversations. Most of these are carried over from Human Revolution, but several more have been added — including a protective armored shell, the ability to hack things like security cameras and turrets from afar, and a super-speed ability that borders on teleportation.

These didn’t fundamentally change the game for me, but they opened up some practical extra options. In general, the series still rewards stealth over a frontal assault, and that’s how I went through it. But if you enjoyed playing Human Revolution in a specific way, you’ll probably enjoy the same thing in Mankind Divided. The least sexy but most useful addition is the game’s crafting system. "Crafting" usually implies some kind of complicated recipe collection, but in this case, it’s a single pool of raw material you can convert into various useful items, a flexible inventory that acts as a stopgap when you’re running low. It’s hardly a bottomless well of resources, but it lessens the temptation to hoard equipment in fear of using that last hacking tool or biocell at the wrong time.

Exploring a city no longer feels like warping between dimensions

Deus Ex’s architecture defines how you can approach missions, and areas are still full of ducts, hackable doors, and conveniently discarded PDAs holding keycodes and passwords. But where Human Revolution regularly punted you to loading screens between buildings, Mankind Divided lets both you and your enemies seamlessly move between them. Especially in city hubs, locations sprawl and overlap in a way that sometimes makes finding a specific objective difficult. But overall, it’s a more cohesive and organic game — if you anger the city police force and they come after you, for example, ducking into an apartment to hide no longer feels like warping to another dimension.

Its narrative cohesion is more uneven. Over the past year, the game’s developers have gotten in hot water for using historically specific and emotionally loaded terms like "apartheid" and a play on Black Lives Matter’s slogan — "augmented lives matter" appears prominently on posters throughout the world. They would have been better off without it, because Mankind Divided’s "mechanical apartheid" is an incredibly abstract and symbolic kind of dystopia. It’s a mix of updated racist artifacts (segregated park benches and train cars, being stopped for literal "papers" in the year 2029) and melodramatic set pieces, the kind of world where you know augs are oppressed because the police are randomly beating them in the streets and pedestrians keep talking about how much they hate them.

Deus Ex Mankind Divided

Unapologetic melodrama is the best fit for shooters like Deus Ex, because subtlety looks grotesque when your avatar is personally capable of causing so much destruction. Writing an over-the-top narrative about secret societies and genetically modified super-soldiers doesn’t preclude social statements. The game’s bombastic debate sessions — intricate rhetorical battles that require making an argument while playing to your opponent’s personality type — are particularly good at combining gameplay and commentary with a theatrical flourish.

But the sheer weight of focus on one-dimensional anti-aug prejudice keeps raising distracting questions. Are the super-rich augmented power brokers, who seemed to abound in Human Revolution, also getting sent to ghettos? Did nobody consider working on security improvements for augmentations, instead of jumping straight to techno-ethnic cleansing? Did the world fight some kind of bloody war against limbs, or did entire cities' worth of people really amputate healthy arms and legs for clunky prosthetics that seem mostly pointless?

Seriously, Why did all these people cut off their arms in the first place?

The game gives vague and unsatisfying responses, but as Human Revolution made clear, the real answer to any question is probably that the Illuminati (or some other secret society) is responsible. Unfortunately, the vast conspiracy Adam Jensen uncovered in that game — and is theoretically tracking throughout Mankind Divided — gets less development than I’d hoped. The game opens on a generic anti-terrorism mission in Dubai, which looks a little too much like something from similarly allegorical shooter Spec Ops: The Line. Because it’s a prequel to the original Deus Ex, the shadowy dealings are mostly interesting if you already know what older versions of various characters will do, and how certain events tie into the rest of the series.

Meanwhile, Adam has moved on from the angst that defined him in Human Revolution, and severed his ties with almost everyone in that game. It’s a necessary and believable evolution, but it takes hours to establish any new emotional stakes for him, and the first supporting characters you interact with are some of the game’s least memorable. Getting through a mission is its own reward, but it’s less fun to wander around and explore the world when you don’t particularly care about what’s happening in it.

Deus Ex Mankind Divided

And not exploring would be a serious mistake. Mankind Divided is full of intriguing side quests, including cracking the mystery of how Adam suddenly manifested a whole new set of experimental superpowers. They’re often more compelling than the main storyline, and they make things that could seem intolerable if they were mandatory — like one of the game’s only traditional boss fights — a nice change of pace instead.

Unfortunately, some of my favorite subplots were either aborted or fizzled out with no clear resolution. Sometimes, this was intentional. The Deus Ex games have always had branching paths, including multiple endings. But unlike previous installments, where it was possible to experience every major event, Mankind Divided occasionally presents you with stark binary choices. They’re reminiscent of the life-or-death decisions in Telltale’s The Walking Dead, except that at least one shuts off an entire mission that’s never revisited. This is a bold and legitimate artistic move, but Deus Ex is so specifically centered on uncovering conspiracies and unraveling narrative threads that it made my playthrough feel artificially incomplete. And in other cases, mostly side missions, it felt like I’d simply missed a part of the quest, with no clue what I’d done wrong.

Subtlety would be grotesque when you can cause so much destruction

This is a clear incentive to play through the game twice (or more), and it’s self-evident that people who spend more time exploring will find more things. Maybe if I looked hard enough, there’d even be a way to recover that lost mission. But the result is that the game puts its weakest narrative foot forward, saving the best parts for die-hard players. One playthrough — my cautious and exploration-heavy run took around 28 hours — is more time than we’d tell anyone to spend on a book, movie, or TV season. It’s totally reasonable to expect a single satisfying arc, especially because while the vast majority of the game is well-tuned and enjoyable, a few rough patches in the third act become long, repetitive, and tedious. Telling a good story shouldn’t take a backseat to offering rewards for Deus Ex superfans, but that’s what fetishizing completionism does.

To be clear, I count myself among the superfans, and I love endlessly digging around in role-playing games, at least outside the crunch period of writing a review. But I’d rather have a tighter central story that’s experienced by everyone, including people who want to appreciate it in smaller doses.

The biggest question for any follow-up of a legendary game like Deus Ex is how it lives up to the original, even if Deus Ex was hardly perfect in its own right. In this case, I’m not sure there’s a good answer. Where Deus Ex was full of rough edges and non sequiturs (just wait till you get to the chupacabras), Mankind Divided feels somewhere between streamlined and simplistic. It’s a modest but well-executed improvement on an already-solid formula, an attempt at straight-faced political commentary that never delves too deeply into what it’s trying to say. It’s an open world that lets you do anything you want, until it cuts you off at the knees. But fortunately, it holds to the central tenet of pulp: even when things go wrong, they rarely stop being fun.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided will be available on August 23rd for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. We'll also have some thoughts on Breach, an additional mode of the game, before release.

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