Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (2016)

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a very strong entry into the Deus Ex franchise, telling a compelling story through excellent gameplay, absolutely outstanding environmental and visual design, a talented voice cast, and generally strong writing. It’s not as grandiose as Deus Ex: Human Revolution, or the original Deus Ex game, but instead much more tightly focused, with greater attention paid to detail rather than scope.

[Note: The bulk of this review has no spoilers, and I’ll mark the section with spoilers very clearly, so you won’t accidentally get anything spoiled if you’re avoiding that. Also, I’ve reviewed all the transmedia offerings surrounding this game, so you may be interested in their reviews here: Deus Ex: GO (a mobile game), Deus Ex: Black Light (a novel), Deus Ex: Hard Line (a short story), Deus Ex: The Dawning Darkness (a short comic), and Deus Ex: Children’s Crusade (a comic series).]

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While other Deus Ex games use cities as tools through which to tell their story (Detroit in Human Revolution reflecting Sarif’s belief that transhumanism could improve life for everyone, New York in the original game reflecting the dystopic state of terrorism and trampled underclass of the time), Prague is the story of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Lacking much of the globetrotting sense of the other games, with their multiple hubs and excursions to different regions, the vast majority of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is set in Prague, a singular city hub (technically two hub regions, with three distinct worldstates corresponding to the three acts of the game, daytime in the first act, night-time in the second act, and raining at night-time in the third act).

Prague is sketched in enormous detail from the developers, and the massively interconnected state of the hub is extremely impressive. There’s a great sense of freedom, as it’s so easy to stumble from location to location in Prague, and much attention was paid to keeping the writing cohesive no matter in what order you experienced things – for example, I broke into an apartment early that would end up being vital to an important side quest. I stole sensitive materials from the safe in the apartment. Later, when that side quest actually began, Adam informed the character offering the side quest that he’d already investigated that apartment and found the materials, and the narrative very naturally bent around the non-linear way in which my exploration of the game-world had altered the structure of the side-quest. The game absolutely succeeds in making the player experience feel organic no matter how they play, and that’s no small feat.

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Prague is a gorgeous cyberpunk landscape, the clash between the aged beauty of the baroque and Gothic architecture of the city with both the ultra-sleek futuristic aspects like the Palisade Blade, and high-tech low-life touches like perpetually exposed wires, grimy slums filled with citizens with once-glistening mechanical augmentations turned dull and shameful, and icons of a techno-religion formed around trying desperately to escape the increasingly dystopic world to a state of cyber-enlightenment. Visual motifs like triangles and columns of varying heights abound. The art and visual direction of the game is so unbelievably strong; it towers mightily over the vast majority of video games I’ve ever played. It plays so well with the huge amounts of freedom the gameplay affords the player. The developers have created a staggeringly gorgeous, detailed world, and given players all the tools needed to explore and appreciate it freely. In this regard, the game exceeds the reach of Human Revolution and perhaps even the original game.

Prague is the focal point of the “mechanical apartheid”, the titular “mankind divided” that has seen augmented citizens subjugated, feared, and oppressed by the natural majority. Evoking race specifically as the divide between augmented and natural citizens was a curious choice, demonstrated in the use of the term “apartheid”, in-game posters declaring “Aug lives matter!” in a phrasing reminiscent to the Black Lives Matter movement, and some characters explicitly calling anti-augmented individuals “racists”. Racism certainly is a huge and easily comprehended division between humans, but the fact people are born of a certain race (though this is arguable in itself when regarding race as a social and at-times even transient construct), and augmented citizens presumably at some point made a choice to become augmented, muddies the waters a tad – is the comparison really fitting, when race is supposedly immutable but augmentation isn’t?

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I think the situation is too complicated to really answer that easily. It’s easy to say augmented people “chose” to become augmented, but Deus Ex: Human Revolution showed how that really wasn’t the case – ex-military personnel offered free augmentations may have felt little choice when all other prospects had failed them. The near-poverty women in Hengsha that wouldn’t even be kept on as prostitutes unless submitting themselves to augmentations doubtlessly felt little choice or agency in the matter. People undertaking voluntary augmentations just to keep up in a workforce passing them by were unlikely to be hugely “pro”-augmentation people like David Sarif or members of ARC. Most augmented people had some level of choice, except for those augmented completely involuntarily like Adam “I never asked for this” Jensen or members of the Hyron project, but to characterise them as a legion of pro-augmentations Icarus’ being rightfully punished for their hubris is extremely reductive and inaccurate.

Another interesting argument surrounding the oppression of augmented citizens is that they on some level “deserve it”, or that the oppression is in some way justified and rightful, because the Aug Incident (where the majority of augmented citizens went on murderous rampages at the end of Human Revolution) was such a tragedy and perhaps harbinger of future threats, that subjugating augmented citizens even through such draconian measures as the Human Restoration Act (where all augmented citizens would be confined to “camps” separated from natural society) would be justified. This point is where I feel the game could have really dug in and justified the equivalence with racial politics, although the game ultimately doesn’t explore it nearly as in-depth enough to do that. Slave-owners in history have offered myriads of reasons for why their oppression is justified – lack of intelligence and capability of the slaves, inherently inferior or violent nature of the slaves, etc. In today’s world we see people blame entire religions for the actions of a small, yet very violent and well-known, minority. The opening credits of Mankind Divided see an augmented citizen cry “we were victims…this is retribution for a tragedy we could not control”. This is a legitimately interesting and provocative topic, far beyond the simplistic social themes like “racism is bad” that most games that even attempt some thematic exploration explore, and I’m disappointed the game didn’t dig into it further.

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The developers have made it clear they’re more interested in asking questions and providing a world for players to explore issues, rather than to make any definitive statements of their own, but I think they go too far with the apoliticism (which is somewhat useless anyway, as developer intention bleeds through in many cases – so many of the side quests are clearly written from a perspective of thinking the oppression of the augmented goes too far). Human Revolution for the most part was similar, but the ending offered players the chance to, after a game full of exploring the concept of transhumanism, make their mind up about their own thoughts on the topic, and commit to an ending reflecting that. Mankind Divided doesn’t really offer players a chance to “answer the question” of the game’s main explored theme, the “mankind divided” that sees natural citizens oppress augmented ones, and I think it’s weaker for it.

I’m unsure Adam was the best protagonist for this story, because he remains bizarrely apolitical on the issue for most of the game. I think this is more a function of developer intention than character deficiency, but it irritated me nonetheless. Why doesn’t he care more, or have more to say? He has such a unique viewpoint, being an augmented citizen rejected by many of his fellow “augs” because his transformation wasn’t voluntary, he’s accepted by more natural citizens than most of them, and he’s very “shiny” and hi-tech compared to most of them, yet he’s still rejected by most natural citizens for being augmented at all. I wish he had more of a personal story embedded into the main narrative, though some late-game revelations add a layer of personal connection to the story that satisfied me to an extent.

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In saying all that, I don’t think the developer’s exploration of oppression is toothless, and think they actually do a remarkable job of embedding the theme holistically into the game at every level – writing, gameplay, visuals, etc. I just think they ultimately fail at saying much meaningful about it, or offering the player the chance to. This is a very common issue in video games, where the motivation often seems more to be offering players an environment in which to contemplate an issue rather than a place where either developers or the player can make a statement (I do think such games that offer the latter succeed because it gives all that worldbuilding a “purpose”, letting the player cathartically find closure in making their choices). I should also make the point that this criticism is entirely separate to any oft-repeated criticisms on the “abrupt” and “chopped-up” ending; I’m commenting on the game’s attempt to be apolitical, rather than the literal ending itself.

Thoughts on closure aside, they embed the sense of oppression so well into the game-world holistically. The player, and Adam Jensen himself in-story, are totally free to use the natural-citizen facilities. They can go on the natural train, rather than the dirty aug-train. But they’ll be stopped, time and time again, by anti-aug police. While I initially made a point to use natural facilities in public whenever I could, as a sort of statement to fellow augs that we were equal and as a point to naturals that we were no harm, eventually I grew so wearied by the endless harassment, that I just started using the aug-train and other aug pathways. The game succeeded tremendously by annoying me so much, and I think that’s marvellous. It wasn’t fun video-game escapism, but impressive emulation of an increasingly fascist city where an entire class of people were being excessively oppressed. Similar triumphs only increase as the game continues, the worldstate of Prague develops, and the slip into fascist dystopia continues.

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I’ve seen comments that the ending is abrupt, and I can appreciate and agree to a certain degree, but I hardly think the ending came out of nowhere – the state of Prague in the third-act was a pretty clear culmination of issues the game had brought up in the very beginning, and the final mission offered the player and Adam the chance to address these issues. The game does ultimately feel more “episodic” than Human Revolution, with a number of subplots set-up but not finished, but I do think the game tells a complete story, the story of Prague as an example of increasing oppression of the augmented class. Is it unsatisfying that the game wasn’t also a complete story of Janus and the Juggernaut Collective, a post-Panchea Adam Jensen, and the ultimate fate of the augmented? Absolutely, but I’d personally direct this criticism more as the nature of the game being episodic, rather than unfinished. The way Human Revolution ended, you could pick up the original Deus Ex game (set 25 years later) right after without feeling like story-threads were really “dangling”. You can’t do that with Mankind Divided really, and while of course I’m personally annoyed I’ll probably have to wait years to see the story continue, I think this is me chafing at how long it will take Eidos and Square Enix to finish this story I deeply enjoy, rather than any fundamental dissatisfaction with the story they’re telling.

Speaking of the nature of the game as “episodic”, I found the opening credits more like the intro of a TV show – setting the stage, informing the backstory, setting the tone – than the sort of character and thematic genesis that Human Revolution’s credits were. Different, but still extremely enjoyable. I actually watched the opening credits before every session of playing the game, because they immersed me so well into the game-world.

Other differences to Human Revolution include a less personal story (Human Revolution also squandered the chance to tell a fascinating character story about Adam, but it did tell his story to some extent), general improvements in most aspects (better gameplay, better visual and environmental design, etc.), and a different voice for David Sarif! I deeply missed the original Sarif voice actor, who delivered such a unique and memorable performance, perfectly emulating the somewhat-annoying boss that felt irritatingly friendly at times (a transhumanist Michael Scott?). Sarif was such a strong character that I’m glad he was brought back, but I wish it was with his original actor, and for more than just his (admittedly, very important and compelling) side quest. I was surprised the game didn’t go with a very organic explanation for the new voice – just say his throat and voice was badly damaged in his escape from Panchea, and he got a new “vocal augmentation” as a consequence, thus explaining the new voice.

The Task Force 29 headquarters was a very impressive location, with a gorgeous score (my favourite musical track of the game), but we didn’t spend enough time there, and the characters there weren’t quite so strong, for it to surpass Sarif Industries or UNATCO as “player homebases”. Director Miller was one of the most interesting characters of the game, and I really liked how my perspective on him evolved as the game continued. As an Australian myself, I always really appreciate when an Australian character into a game is integrated well, and really appreciated they used a proper Aussie actor like Vernon Wells. While I didn’t find the TF29 HQ as much of a “home” as Sarif Industries in Human Revolution, there were some golden moments there – the cybersecurity supervisor actually chastising me for poking around on NPC computers and threatening to escalate the matter to a stage very undesirable for me, reminded me of how messing around in Sarif Industries at the start of Human Revolution, when Sarif repeatedly told Adam to hurry up and get the hostages, actually led to the hostages dying. They were both moments where typical gameplay conventions were cast aside for realism, and I loved them both for really shaking me up, and making the game feel a lot more real and immediate than most video games.

tumblr_nsnu2gNKd91qdyq52o1_1280.jpgThe gameplay mainly operates under four pillars – stealth, combat, hacking, social – where the player can choose how to approach situations. As with any game that offers me the option, I opted to go as social as possible, but where that failed, I went with stealth and hacking. I was proud to get through the game without killing a single soul. I’ve seen some criticism of the game for only really having two “boss battles” (one of them part of an entirely optional side quest) but, as in Human Revolution, I found each of the social debates to be boss battles in their own right. They’re climaxes of gameplay, where players have to work extra-hard, and the stakes are very high. Certainly feel like boss battles to me, just under a different gameplay pillar than “combat”. In these debates, the NPCs feel like real people, not gameplay abstractions where I just have to continue down a certain dialogue tree to “beat”. The writing is strong enough, and the gameplay supporting it nuanced and well-developed enough, that the game transcends the typical constraints of the medium into something truly compelling. While I have issues with a lot of the “main” writing of the game, namely the bizarre apoliticism that pervades Jensen’s stake in the main “aug oppression” theme and narrative, the lack of thematic closure (I do maintain that the game has narrative closure though), the writing truly shines in these “social boss battles”, as well as in most of the side quests – the Harvester side quests were a particular highlight, but nearly all of the side quests are triumphs as excellent somewhat self-contained cyberpunk short stories set in the brilliantly realised game-world of Prague. I also particularly enjoyed the restraint deployed in the ending of the Mystery Augs side quest, but I’ll touch on that more in the spoiler section of this review. I’ll also touch more on the connections to the original Deus Ex game in that section, as well as implications of the ending, and how the ending serves as a reaction to the (in my personal opinion, largely unfounded) criticisms to the ending of Human Revolution.

Ultimately, while I have a few issues with the game – some personal (I generally dislike game developers being apolitical to the point the game fails to even let the player make a statement), some more general and widely-shared (the game is irritatingly episodic) – I think overall, it’s a triumph, possibly an unparallelled achievement in terms of environmental and visual design in video games, and a very worthy entry into the Deus Ex franchise. I give it four tranquiliser darts, and a bomb jammer.

[End of the non-spoiler section of the review.]

I’ll add a load of paragraph breaks here, to prevent accidentally seeing the spoiler section – you’ll have to intentionally scroll down to see it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Beginning of the spoiler section of the review.]

The game connects a lot more explicitly to the original Deus Ex game than Human Revolution did. Rather than two oblique cameos of Bob Page, we outright see Lucius DeBeers as the (unfrozen) head of the Illuminati, we see the seeds of UNATCO formed through the machinations behind Task Force 29, we see Bob Page multiple times (especially if the player goes for the “Bank” rather than “Allison” option at a critical gameplay juncture), we see Silhouette formed, Page’s experiments with bioweapons (through the Orchid) possibly foreshadow the Grey Death, etc. These aren’t just references like Human Revolution had, these are elements of the original game actually fulfilling important roles – Manderly and Page are legitimate villains of the game.

Bob_Page_MD.jpgThe way the game is set-up for a sequel makes me wonder just how Eidos is going to play this. We’re still in 2029, 23 years away from the original Deus Ex game. Will there be one or two more Adam Jensen games covering the early/mid 2030s, and that will be it? Or will that be followed by a “remake” of the first game? I’d honestly really enjoy that, the team has more than proved their capability as well as their respect for the original, and I’d love to see their take on the original game. The “original” original game will always be there, so it’s not like they’re violating anything. I’d be really intrigued if they would add some content as well, like the pro-UNATCO path the developers originally wanted to include, to really enhance the sense of player choice and freedom the original developers did such a great job paving the way for in future games. Perhaps there’s a third option Square Enix is considering, completing an Adam Jensen trilogy (or quadrilogy?), then continuing with other Deus Ex prequel games. Or maybe an interquel set at the same time as the original game. There’s so many possibilities, but I hope the games are approached less episodically in future, and work more as self-contained entries.

The ending I think was almost handicapped by how hard it reacted to the response to Human Revolution’s ending. Human Revolution was criticised for having an ending that eventuated in just choosing one of four buttons to receive an ending video presenting the effects of your choice and the culmination of your judgement on transhumanistic augmentation. I’ve always found the backlash to this ending baffling – the ending to the original game is extremely similar. You go to a different spot in the final worldspace, perform an action, and a final sequence plays where your judgement on the state of the world culminates in a sequence showing the effects of your choice (Invisible War is also the same here, muddying it slightly by offering “faction choices”, but negating that by how easy it is to switch factions). None of the three other main-series Deus Ex games offers post-game play in worldstates changed as a result of your choice. The ending is where the player makes their statement on the game’s theme. Nevertheless, Human Revolution faced a significant amount of criticism for its ending (for the record, I used to choose the Sarif pro-augmentation ending, but in later playthroughs later in my life, I changed my mind and now commit to the destroy-Panchea ending).

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Mankind Divided doesn’t really have that. There’s no choice where Adam/the player is forced to weigh in on their moral judgement on the central issue of the game – the mechanical apartheid, the titular “mankind divided”, the oppression of augmented citizens by natural citizens. The big “choice” of the ending isn’t between four outcomes that reflect your moral judgement on the game’s central theme. It’s between “save hundreds of innocent citizens from a terrorist attack, and let an act condemning the augmented to pass” and “save around a dozen politicians and thus block an act condemning the augmented to pass, but in doing so condemn hundreds of innocent citizens to die in a terrorist attack”. I’m aware you can negate this choice to an extent, and actually fulfil both outcomes (this is what I did in my playthrough), but I’m addressing how the game presents it as a choice at all – even between the three options, save-citizens, save-politicians, save-both, I feel there’s such a huge dissonance between this choice and the game that comes before it. It’s perhaps an interesting exploration of the concept of “the ends justify the means”, offering the player the chance to make a moral judgement on consequentialism…but the game was never about consequentialism. It was never about the issue of how much is one life worth. It was about divisions in society, about how societies can slip into fascism, about supposed moral equivalences between oppressors and the oppressed, about how systematic oppression fundamentally transforms societies, about the subjugation of underclasses, about what level (if any) of oppression can be justified…it was never about “do the ends justify the means”, and that’s what makes the ending feel odd to me. I don’t feel like the game is fundamentally incomplete, and I think the ending makes perfect narrative sense, but it’s so off-kilter thematically that I was still thrown off by it. The ending certainly is reactive to earlier gameplay choices, answering complaints of those who disliked how Human Revolution’s ending was so self-contained to the final mission (again, a truly bizarre complaint in my eyes, considering the other two main-series Deus Ex games were exactly the same), but it lacks thematic closure, a much greater error in my eyes. I don’t hate the ending, and I feel like the sequence with Alex and Adam in his apartment after it worked well (and the mid-credits sequence worked fantastically for me), but I think it’s far greater “failure” than Human Revolution’s.

The main difference in endings is whether the Human Restoration Act, the proposed act that would escalate treatment of augmented citizens worldwide to be just as bad as it is in Prague, passes. This is such a large difference than I wonder how the next game will treat it. It can’t be as easily conflated as the endings of the original Deus Ex game and Human Revolution were for their sequels; the “combine the endings” approach seems less likely to work with such a binary delineated choice as this. The original Deus Ex game provides enough leeway in the treatment of mechanically augmented citizens that I can see it work either way – either augmented citizens are largely eradicated or living in terrible segregated complexes, or they’re largely living in fairly isolated cities like Nathaniel Brown’s Rabi’ah anyway. I’ve seen articles of the developers talking about importing saves from Mankind Divided into the next game, which seems to me significantly different enough from how the Deus Ex series has typically treated ending states, that it may lend some credence to the idea that Square Enix forced Eidos to partition an originally much-larger planned Deus Ex game into smaller instalments, including Mankind Divided and presumably one or two sequels. I have no particular attachment to “conflate all endings” as a series convention, but I find importing saves typically a messy solution as very few developers have the time or resources to substantially invest in significantly different gameplay paths reacting to such choices of a previous product, so I’m unsure of how the sequel will fare with this issue, or how I even would prefer the developers to treat it.

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One aspect of the ending did work tremendously well for me, the revelation that the Adam Jensen we played in Mankind Divided was not exactly who he seemed. This tied heavily into the David Sarif side quest,“The Mystery Augs”, the conclusion of which displayed a surprising amount of restraint for video-game writing, even the generally above-industry-standard writing of this series. Sarif and Adam discover that Adam’s “old augs”, while exactly the same in function as they were in Human Revolution, don’t actually seem to be his “old augs”. I’ve seen some postulate that this means little, that they are the exact same augs, and it’s just a case of the Alaska facility not reporting their serial numbers, but I think the implication is that they truly aren’t the same augs. Sarif holds back from telling Adam what he thinks this means, instead saying something to the effect of “there are some things best worked out yourself Adam”. The fact he calls these augmentations “Adam Jensen’s augmentations” to “Adam Jensen’s” face in this conversation also seems a tell to me. Is this Adam Jensen, the one we play through all of Mankind Divided, not the same as the Adam of Human Revolution? Is he some sort of clone? I believe so. Helle/Eliza Cassan also informs “Adam” that he is “inconsistent” with how he behaved in Human Revolution. The only returning character Adam interacted with notably in Human Revolution is David Sarif, who comments on Adam’s differences as well, so there’s no chance for someone like Malik or Megan to comment on any supposed changes.

The early-game Illuminati scene sees Lucius DeBeers order the activation of the “sleeper cell” as part of his “arrangements [to deal with Janus]”, which is followed by a scene of “Adam Jensen” literally waking up. The mid-credits/post-credits Illuminati scene sees Illuminati double-agent psychiatrist Delara Auzenne say that Adam’s “memories are still consistent with the program”, followed by Debeers questioning “How close is he to contact with Janus?”. It seems Adam is Debeers’ tool to deal with Janus – his instincts as a cop predictably leading him to try and meet face-to-face with Janus would seem fruitful for Debeers, as he could activate some sort of killswitch inside “Adam” to get him to deal with Janus. It’s possible that we are still the same Adam Jensen as we were in Human Revolution, and it’s just that his body has been extensively tinkered with by the Illuminati, but I feel the tone of the final conversation with Sarif, as well as the wording in the Illuminati scenes, veers more towards him being some form of clone. In either case, the Harvester side quest reveals there’s a way for augmentations to change mental patterns and behaviour, so some form of suggestion to push Adam beyond his traditional cop instincts that would lead to him demanding a face-to-face meeting with Janus, to a more dogged ideal of pursuing Janus makes sense, as does the implementing of some form of killswitch.

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I like this aspect of the story because it gives Adam, no matter who he is, a personal stake in the narrative, something sorely missing from the main mechanical apartheid focus of Mankind Divided. It also characterises Debeers as intelligent and crafty enough that it makes sense why, in the original Deus Ex game, Morgan Everett would keep him alive in a cryogenic state to consult his advice at times of need. While I also found Human Revolution squandered a lot of potentially strong character story by relegating a lot of Adam’s development to the sidelines or to implication, I was even more disappointed by how Mankind Divided doubled down on such treatment for Adam’s personal development in this game. The Illuminati-controlling-Adam story thread, no matter whether it’s through him being a clone or just heavily altered, is strong enough that it retroactively colours some of the story of Mankind Divided to be more powerful to me, but it feels more like it will really provide fruit in the sequel. I assume the sequel will begin to deal with Bob Page’s attack on the Illuminati, as this game situated him as a more primary character and antagonistic focus, and the Majestic 12 conflict with the Illuminati is one of the few large backstory strokes the original Deus Ex provided that Eidos haven’t tackled yet. I would not be surprised if Janus turns out to be, if not Bob Page himself, then a lackey (whether human or AI) of his, as the focus on harming the Illuminati would connect well with Page’s goals, and there are few other interesting candidates for Janus’ identity.

In any case, I’m very much looking forward to the sequel, but hope it doesn’t take five years to arrive, and hope it lacks some of the issues of Mankind Divided. At the same time, I hope it doesn’t overreact to the backlash, like Mankind Divided did to the reception to Human Revolution’s endings.

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