Game Review: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

I asked for something like this.

Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed), Linux
Available on: Steam

It’s a shame really. I loved Human Revolution and I really looked forward to Mankind Divided. Everything I saw from their marketing made it clear to me that this is the kind of sequel I wanted to a game I greatly enjoyed, the same polished gameplay enhanced by a story and setting that at least tries to be about something. Unfortunately, some things started popping up that made me lose faith somewhat.

First, it was that absolutely unforgivable “augment your pre-order”-bullshit Square Enix tried with this game, to gauge if consumers were either willing or stupid enough to accept something that shows so much contempt for them without raising any flags. Thankfully, this did not come to pass. What did happen though wasn’t any less of a slap in the face for gamers. Pre-ordering the game or buying the season pass grants you a few consumable items that make the game easier for you. That’s not the problem I have, if you want the game to be less difficult for any reason, I welcome you being able to do so, because games should be playable for everybody at every level. But what I feel is another example of how much Square loathes their audience to the point where they want to nickel and dime them is the fact that these consumables are only good for one single playthrough. Once you use them, they’re gone. This is especially galling in a game where playing it differently can yield many different results. An extension for this is that you can actually buy Praxis kits (used to unlock augmentations) for real money as well. They’re literally selling you cheats for this game.

Thankfully, the actual game is in no way worse off if you don’t use these consumables, because it’s actually properly balanced for the player to master whatever the game may through at them. Because holy shit did I love every single second of actually playing this game. This is what I was referring to by calling it a shame. Square tried to cripple a game with gameplay polished to a point where I’m not sure if they can even surpass it outside of some minor technical kinks and I really can’t fathom why. Why would you want to completely undermine a game that offers this much enjoyment by making the absolutely worst corporate decisions to meddle with a product that utterly guarantees that everybody that plays it will leave the game with an ambivalent feeling in their gut?

In Human Revolution, I never really committed to any single playstyle the game offered. I tried going stealthy when I could but it didn’t really matter to me if a hacking attempt failed or whenever I got into a fire fight, because I didn’t go for a non-lethal run. And I know that the ability to do that didn’t sit well with purists, but the game did still offer everybody the chance to play the game with self-imposed restrictions, outside of the boss fights in the original edition that only offered direct confrontation as the only way of dealing with them. But this time around I went for a complete non-lethal stealth run and actually managed to get the pacifist achievement for not killing a single person. And that’s saying a lot for someone like me, since I’m legendarily bad at stealth gameplay.

The reason for this decision is twofold: I wanted to test myself here and see if I could manage to actually do it. And the second reason was that I somehow feel that this is actually the intended way of playing it. That is not to say that you’re not given tons of offensive firepower along with a bunch of pretty cool augmentations for killing people, but sneaking and hacking are far more rewarding here in terms of narrative as well as fleshing out the world and I somehow feel that not doing that would have you end up with a lesser experience.

The way I augmented Jensen was first and foremost with the remote hacking ability, which is almost a necessity if you want to explore most of your environments. The second most useful was the leg augmentation that allows for greater jump height and third increased strength to lift heavy objects. These three are rounded off by smart vision to see through walls as well as the invisibility cloak and noise reduction augmentations. And of course, maxing out Jensen’s hacking abilities and battery capacity and reload speeds. This also meant that I had spare praxis kits that never really got used. After beating the game, I had 6 praxis kits left because I couldn’t really decide on what to do with them, since I was equipped to handle basically everything the game could throw at me, and that’s a nice feeling to have.

Sneaking through these levels was tons of fun and finding all the routes in and out of offices through traditionally oversized vents hidden behind vending machines, hacking open window blinds, awnings and ladders or disabling lasers, cameras and turrets and generally eluding everybody or picking them off silently one by one had me on the edge of my seat. It’s the kind of horror game anticipation of not wanting to get spotted by the monstrosity that’s stalking you, only it doesn’t rely on cheap jumpscares and a black screen all the time.

But what really was the most useful feature in this game, is the save option. I’m not kidding, I save-scummed my way through most of this game and I really feel like this is a legitimate strategy, since the game basically lets you save absolutely everywhere. Because even a maxed-out hacking ability won’t guarantee that you’ll be able to unlock a door or computer 100% of the time, since a random number generator still decides the probability of any step alerting security measures even with a detection rate of 15%.

But it can also entice you to do things you ordinarily wouldn’t if you’d face losing progress. At one point, I snuck my way through a part of some vents that lead to a room filled with noxious gas. And instead of turning around, I simply saved the game, filled up my health bar and sprinted through the room to the other side where I found the valve that controls the flow of the gas. And this is a valid approach to take, because sometimes these rooms are dead-ends with no other way of entering so you’ll just have to take a leap-of-faith like this and the game encourages it with its save feature. Coming back later with the lung upgrade doesn’t really add any challenge to this room, you can just saunter in, close the valve and you’re good to go. And there are numerous instances where I used similar tactics by saving and trying unconventional stuff just to see if it would yield a satisfactory result. Because to me, this is what Deus Ex represents: Playing it the way you want. And save-scumming is just another way the game lets you do exactly that, pretending to  this stealth god that hacks absolutely everything without getting caught or cut off at any point.

So while the gameplay in my opinion is absolutely sublime and far more engaging than most other modern games, the narrative unfortunately deserves a few criticisms. Now the overall story isn’t the problem. I really like the setting here, showing the aftermath of the aug incident and how humanity reacts with justifiable hostility towards augmented people, because to the general population, there’s no real guarantee that something like this wouldn’t happen again. And the ensuing terrorism from augmented people is also believable in the face of current events. Anybody who believes current terrorism has anything to do with religion and not with how the west has been dealing with middle-eastern countries is deluded. And this is perfectly mirrored in this game and I feel the line at the start of the game “If you treat people like animals for long enough, they’ll start acting like animals” rings true.

What I felt was really a letdown is the whole conspiracy aspect that wasn’t fleshed out to a satisfactory point. And this is where the rumors of this game originally being bigger and getting cut into pieces by Square seem to gain a lot of traction, because the game unfortunately ends on a sequel bait cliffhanger that gives no closure to any of the plot threads we see in the game. Sure, TF29 manages to save the day, but the direct impact this had and TF29’s connection to the illuminati is not all that fleshed out. The same is true for Janus and his Juggernaut Collective. The Augmented Rights Coalition a bit more fleshed out, but only to a point where they serve as a scapegoat for the terrorist attacks, and the people behind the illuminati are never elaborated upon except for one single person in a post-credits cutscene that only further complicates matters and brings even more layers to this story that need to be uncovered.

This is only exacerbated by the fact that the major players from Human Revolution barely make an appearance. Tai Yong Medical is namedropped quite often and Belltower is certainly present, but other than that, there isn’t much there. Megan is mentioned but never shown, Sarif makes a few token appearances that don’t amount to much and Pritchard is only mentioned once in passing. Same thing with the Tyrants, they and their actions don’t really play into any of the events now. It feels like there’s a lot of stuff missing here, even in spite of the fact that Eidos really try to tie everything together with the story of the original, setting up the pieces, when realistically it should probably not do so and just try to go forth with its own continuity and eventually revisit the events of the original Deus Ex in a new game, since the original has aged so goddamn poorly that I still haven’t managed to get through it all.

In the end, Mankind Divided provides a phenomenal gameplay experience in an interesting world, that is unfortunately let down by some narrative shortcomings and an ungodly amount of corporate meddling that made me stick with my pledge of not buying this game on launch or anywhere near full price just because I’m absolutely opposed to the bullshit Square Enix tried to pull with this game. And I seriously hope that Square realized that they fucked up here. It wasn’t consumer apathy towards the franchise that resulted in fewer sales. It was their absolutely despicable behavior as a publisher that kneecapped this game and the future of the franchise.

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