Adam Jensen needs a nerf.
Five or six hours into Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, I imagined the game’s bad guys sending angry emails to developer Eidos Montreal complaining about their overpowered player-controlled adversary. Every fortified area Jensen entered started out full of alert, dangerous guards and ended with a heap of unconscious men piled up in a back corner.
I was still in the game’s first act, but I already had so many options at my disposal that I began to feel bad for all these goons I was hospitalizing.
I longed for some limits, so I imposed limitations on myself. Therein lies both the appeal and the failing of Mankind Divided, a sequel that gives us more power and more options than we had in its predecessor without always offering a counterbalance.
Mankind Divided is a follow-up to 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Like its predecessor, it’s a hybrid first/third-person stealth/action game that combines a GTA-ish open world hub with Splinter Cell stealth and Mass Effect dialogue trees, spread over a narrative that branches according to the player’s choices. Every situation can be dealt with in one of a few different ways and every locked door (or proverbial locked door) can be opened with a variety of keys.
Players once again assume the role of a cybernetically enhanced tech-lord named Adam Jensen. Jensen has a pointy beard and a face like a battle-hardened Adam Scott. He’s a cool enough dude that he has sunglasses literally built into his face. He usually wears a futuristic designer trench coat, though occasionally when he’s in the field he’ll take it off. (When Adam Jensen takes off his trenchcoat, shit is about to get real.)
As in Human Revolution, actor Elias Toufexis imparts our hero’s dialogue with an oddly intriguing mix of stoicism and low-level exasperation. His performance is just idiosyncratic enough that I can imagine Jensen doing everyday things like cleaning up his apartment or emailing his boss to ask for a sick day. I like the guy, for some reason, though I imagine many find him dull as a bag of tennis balls.
In Deus Ex’s vision of the future, unchecked technological advancement has thrown the world into disarray as multinational corporations have grown as powerful as governments. (I know, I can’t believe it either.) It’s the year 2029 and breakthroughs in bioengineering have allowed humans to augment themselves with cybernetic implants. It’s not unusual to see people walking around with robot legs, robot arms, or even with robot head-chips stamped into their foreheads.
Augmented people, known as augs, can be faster, stronger, and smarter than their un-augmented counterparts, though they require regular doses of an expensive drug called neuropozyne in order to keep their bodies from rejecting their augmentations. All this has predictably sowed discord and mistrust between augmented and un-augmented “natural” citizens while simultaneously fueling a shadowy arms race between corporate-funded research groups to create the most advanced augmented humans.
Mankind Divided begins with a helpful and well-edited 12-minute video summarizing the hopelessly convoluted plot of Human Revolution. I’ve played that game two and a half times, and while I liked its labyrinthine tale of corporate espionage, I still needed to be reminded of some of what happened. (Quick, who was responsible for the attack at the beginning of the game, and to what end? I thought so.)
The most important two events from that game, as they pertain to the sequel: 1) Jensen learned that his DNA is the key to a new type of augmentation that doesn’t require neuropozyne, and 2) a nefarious plot to mind-control augmented people went awry and caused every augmented person in the world to go berserk and attack the people around them. The first thing was a big deal for Jensen. The second thing was a big deal for the whole world.
After the augmented attack, which has come to be known as “The Incident,” augmented people have become increasingly segregated from and looked down upon by the un-augmented community. This makes for some immediately compelling drama: At one point in the first act, Jensen meets an elderly augmented man who describes losing control and hurting his granddaughter. “This was the work of the devil,” the man says. “He closed our eyes. Forced us to see what he sees.”
It’s easy to understand both sides of the conflict between augs and non-augs. Unfortunately, the whole thing falls down any time the writers attempt to draw explicit parallels between the plight of augmented citizens in 2029 and the plight of oppressed people of color in the real world.
Park benches and restaurants have been marked “naturals only,” and pro-aug-rights propaganda posters say things like “Augmented Lives Matter” and “All Human Lives Matter.”
Any meaningful comparison between cybernetically enhanced fictional characters and real-life marginalized people falls down upon a moment’s examination, of course. Unlike real-life immigrants and people of color, Deus Ex’s augs really are inherently dangerous—some of them can become invisible at will and fire swords out of their arms! Not only that, a little while back they all malfunctioned and millions of people died. There is a reasonable case to be made for some sort of oversight or regulation, and one does not have to be the 2029 version of a Trump supporter to feel that way.
Jensen’s own story opens with his attempts to run down a number of loose and seemingly unrelated plot threads. He starts off working as a double agent within an Interpol task force, where he has been tasked with a straightforward counterterrorism investigation into a train station bombing. His true mission, however, is to secretly work with an underground hacking collective to unmask the people pulling the task force’s strings, the same illuminati responsible for most of what happened in the last game. (I will never tire of hearing Jensen refer to the Illuminati as “the Illuminati” without a trace of irony.) Naturally, Jensen’s mission-within-a-mission tests his loyalties and makes things more complicated, though never quite as complicated as I was expecting.
Mankind Divided feels smaller-scale and less ambitious than its first act led me to believe it would be, and as the credits rolled, I felt faintly unsatisfied. As much as I liked the game overall, I was let down by the abrupt ending, which feels like it is missing an act somewhere. Several plot points are rushed to their conclusion or wrapped up offscreen, while others are left unresolved.
I was also disappointed that the bulk of the tale occurs in and around the city of Prague. Aside from a brief detour to a nearby Aug ghetto called Golem City, there aren’t any other meaningful non-combat hubs in the game. Throughout the first few hours, characters are constantly talking about events in London and the augs-only city of Rabi’ah, which led me to assume that we’d relocate to those two cities in due course. We never did.
Prague itself is wonderful, however, which certainly helped offset my frustrated wanderlust. The city is a terrific example of environment and level design, surely denser and more packed with secrets than every explorable area in Human Revolution combined. I lost hours simply breaking into apartments, reading hacked emails and tracking down side objectives and easter eggs. The city streets only tell part of the tale; there are a dozen or so stores to explore along with an underground sewer system and even a full-sized bank to infiltrate at your leisure. I’m on my second playthrough and am still uncovering new stuff.
Jensen returns to Prague between story missions, and each time he comes home, the city has changed somewhat. Now it’s nighttime and the red light district is booming; now it’s raining and danger lurks around every corner. Prague is so detailed and fun to explore that I can understand why it’s the only hub in the game, just as I can forgive myself for greedily wanting more just like it.
The original Deus Ex helped pioneer the immersive sim style of game. One of the defining aspects of the immersive sim is that players are given the freedom to approach a given situation in a variety of ways. By exploiting the game’s systems and artificial intelligence, players can come up with creative solutions the game’s designers may not have even considered.
In the original Deus Ex, that generally meant that you could either hack your way in, or access a hard-to-reach alternate route, or smooth-talk a guard, or sneak in and steal the keycode from someone’s desk, or some other creative option that wasn’t immediately apparent. You had to pick a couple of specializations from the outset and focus on them, which meant that some avenues of progression were locked off.
Mankind Divided is so eager to show off its toys that it almost immediately throws all that out the window. The two primary character builds that players have to choose from are basically “stealth” and “combat.” Like a good Deus Ex-er, I decided at the outset to focus on stealth, which meant that I didn’t need to pay attention to any of the skills related to damage absorption, reload speed or robo-armor.
The farther I got into the game, the less even that initial stealth/combat distinction seemed to count. I was soon able to earn enough upgrades to unlock the majority of my hacking, stealth, exploration and combat options. The game stopped being about building a specific character for a specific playstyle and became more about choosing which way I wanted to crush my adversaries this time.
Here’s a hypothetical situation: you need to access a door that’s being watched by a camera. Want to hack into the security computer and turn off the camera? You can. Want to craft a tool that’ll hack the security computer for you? Do it. Want to shoot the camera with an EMP bullet and disable it? Cool. Want to shoot the camera with regular bullets and blow it up? Sure. Want to disable the camera with your remote hacking ability? Fine. Want to climb to that high-up grate and go around? Go for it. Want to become invisible and walk right past? You can definitely do that, too.
By the midpoint I found that while I was certainly still enjoying myself, I felt unchallenged and even occasionally listless. Even playing on the highest difficulty, my opponents stood no chance. When I knew that I could just as easily access a locked-off room from the front, bottom, or side, did it even matter which direction I chose?
The imbalance between me and my opponents was exacerbated by their comparative dimness. Jensen has been buffed up with a number of new abilities, weapons and augmentations, but his enemies have stayed mostly the same. They still patrol in predictable patterns, and they still occasionally fail to notice if you shoot a guy standing right next to them. They still lose you if you go invisible or climb into an air vent, and they can’t chase you very far across the map. They still leave unsecured passwords lying around like dirty socks, and they still don’t notice if all their buddies in the room go mysteriously silent.
If and when they do spot you, their combat tactics amount to “launch a frontal assault and have someone throw in a grenade.” The augmented enemies you face late in the game shake things up somewhat, but still fail to use most of their abilities to do much beyond making themselves slightly harder to kill.
Maybe I was the problem? To shake things up, I began to experiment with alternate methods of play. No more quicksaving, for starters. I’d become far too reliant on the F5/F9 combo, saving before trying anything risky and undoing my actions should anything go wrong. I started forcing myself to let my mistakes play out, only reloading a save if I died. Things quickly became more interesting.
I added more restrictions: No more fast-hacking multi-tools. No radar during missions. No objective markers. No pausing to replenish my health mid-gunfight. Slowly but surely, I started to feel challenged. I entered new areas with my eyes open a little wider. I spent more time considering my next move. I hacked more carefully, and when I failed, I hunted around until I found another way in.
I carried this approach over to New Game Plus, which lets you start a new game with all of your augmentations and inventory items intact. The more I restricted myself, the more I reached into Jensen’s toolkit to come up with creative solutions. Did I just screw up while hacking and lock myself out? Tough, better find another way in. Did I just piss off every police officer in a three-block radius? Tough, better fight back or run for my life.
It’s a knock on Mankind Divided’s overall balance that such self-imposed restrictions were necessary for me to fully engage with the game. But it’s a credit to the game that its systems are robust enough to allow a player to effectively restrict themselves as I did.
None of this is to say I didn’t have plenty of fun with Mankind Divided, even before I took on my self-imposed hardcore ruleset. It is as satisfying as ever to ghost your way through a room full of guards, just as it is satisfying to pick them off one at a time. It’s a kick to talk through one of the tricky “conversational boss fights” without the aid of a mood-reading aug, just as it’s fun to sneak around a deadly security robot, hack into its software, and power it down.
But Mankind Divided’s overarching imbalance does demonstrate that a cybernetic superspy’s abilities are only as rewarding to use as his opponents demand them to be. You can only run circles around your foes so many times before you realize you’re basically just running around in circles.
In addition to the main story mode and New Game Plus, Mankind Divided offers a pair of diversions in the form of a standalone game called Breach and a planned trio of add-on missions called “Jensen’s Stories.”
Breach is an interesting attempt at a quick-play leaderboard challenge mode. You play as a VR-enhanced hacker who enters a cyber-realm where data thievery is represented by actual sneaking and shooting. (As it happens, that sneaking and shooting matches up exactly with the combat and stealth mechanics from the main game.) Each level consists of an enclosed space and a number of nodes to hack, with a helping of guards and security devices to bypass along the way. Get in and get out; the clock is ticking.
I like the idea of adding structured, carefully tracked challenges to this type of game, similar to how 2016’s Hitman has gotten so much mileage out of periodically remixing existing environments and mechanics. Breach mode hasn’t hooked me yet, however, in large part because I find its clean “you are inside the computer” aesthetic unappealing and hard to read. I could see some players getting into obsessively working out the fastest way to clear each level. So far, it’s not for me.
Jensen’s Stories are harder to quantify. As I understand it, they are included as part of the game’s season pass. The first one, titled “Desperate Measures,” will be available at launch, and the other two will be doled out over the months to come. Desperate Measures warns players that it contains spoilers from the main story, so I played it after finishing.
I was plonked into Jensen’s shoes about a third of the way into Mankind Divided proper and sent off on a 30-minute sidequest that had me breaking into the offices of a private security firm. The mission is directly tied to the events of the main story, but for some reason has been pulled out and made into its own side-narrative.
I was immediately annoyed to find that I hadn’t carried over my augs and gear. Instead, I had to create a new character and use a pre-determined loadout. Jensen’s Stories seem like the kind of thing that’ll eventually be folded directly into a Game of the Year edition of Mankind Divided. Considering how the game would’ve benefitted from an additional location or two, it’s a shame it couldn’t be included from the start. Maybe it’ll make more sense once the second and final chapters are released.
People who work in technology often talk about feature creep, a phenomenon by which additional, often unnecessary functions are added to an already functional product until it becomes bloated. Mankind Divided suffers from this at times, and is the first game in a while where I’ve felt the need to nerf myself in order to properly enjoy it.
Despite its various shortcomings, Mankind Divided remains a worthy sequel to Human Revolution and one of the clearest signs yet that the immersive sim has returned to the top of the gaming heap. Whatever disappointment I felt about the limited narrative scope has been offset by the many surprises hidden in its wonderfully winding city hub. Whatever grumbles I groused about its heavy-handed allegory were offset by how compassionately it often depicted the people living in its fractured world. Whatever complaints I had about its wonky balance and deteriorating difficulty curve were offset by the fact that I’m having a better time with all of my abilities unlocked than I had the first time through.
I’m still playing, and I’m having more fun the more I play. I can ask for little more than that.