Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is in a somewhat unique position among RPGs. It is the sequel to a prequel, and thus has to contend with living up to what came before and what comes after it in the series timeline. It’s a tricky balancing act to be sure, but Eidos Montreal manages it with grace, although there are a few bumps along the road.
Mankind Divided takes place two years after the climactic events at the end of Human Revolution, where augmented individuals were temporarily driven into a frenzied, hyper-aggressive state. Anti-aug sentiment sweeps the globe in the wake of this incident, and the augmented face harsh regulations, persecution, and even forced relocation to unforgiving “aug ghettos.” In this volatile environment, returning hero Adam Jensen has joined an elite anti-terrorism unit within Interpol, but he is also secretly working with an underground hacktivist group to expose the Illuminati, the mysterious power brokers responsible for the so-called “Aug Incident.” After a brief tutorial mission, certain dramatic events occur that set the stage for the rest of the game, and players are free to explore Jensen’s new home in Prague, taking on main story and side missions at their discretion. Compared to the hub worlds of Human Revolution, Prague is both larger and more densely packed with things to see and do. The city itself is a beautiful combination of sci-fi elements and more traditional architecture, and the many winding streets and alleyways make it feel more natural compared to Detroit and Hengsha. I wasted plenty of time just exploring the two parts of the city, hacking storage lockers, looting my neighbors’ apartments, reading everyone’s emails — you know, typical Deus Ex stuff. Sadly, Prague is the only hub world in Mankind Divided. You’ll visit a few other areas over the course of the game, but they are generally much smaller and self-contained.
Whether it’s wandering the streets of Prague or exploring faraway locales, level design and gameplay are the stars of Mankind Divided. Like its predecessor, the game gives players multiple avenues by which they can progress through areas, depending on whether they favor direct combat, stealth, or hacking. There are more alternate routes to explore this time around, and some of the larger areas provide players with the opportunity to fluidly mix and match different approaches as they make their way to an objective.
One of the standout areas I explored was called Golem City, a so-called aug ghetto near Prague formed by stacking thousands of shipping containers into a haphazard megastructure. The atmosphere was extremely oppressive as I made my way through police checkpoints, dilapidated markets, and heavily guarded complexes, but I was pleasantly surprised by the intense verticality of the place. You’re basically climbing from the belly of the structure to its peak, and the sheer number of possible routes you can take to reach the next story objective is impressive.
Equally impressive are the tools at your disposal. All of the augmentations from Human Revolution return, but Jensen also has several new, “experimental” augs that complement various different playstyles. My personal favorite is remote hacking, which lets you disable cameras, turrets, and various other electronic devices from a distance. For the more combat inclined, there are augmentations like the Titan shield, which envelops Jensen in an impenetrable shell for a short time; and those who prefer stealth will appreciate the Icarus Dash, which lets you silently travel short distances in the blink of an eye. None of these new augmentations are necessary or change the gameplay experience in such a way that you feel handicapped without them, but they can be fun to play around with and some of them are quite useful.
In addition to augmentations, you’ll find a selection of more conventional weapons over the course of the game. These run the gamut from stealth weapons, like the stun gun and tranquilizer rifle, all the way to high-powered shotguns and grenade launchers. As in Human Revolution, every weapon can be customized by adding attachments (like scopes or silencers) and using crafting parts to upgrade various stats. New to Mankind Divided is a handy way to change different aspects of an equipped weapon, like ammo type or firing mode, on the fly. By simply pressing a button, you can quickly modify your weapon to suit the situation at hand, and the game is nice enough to pause the action while you do so — a feature I greatly appreciated.
Regardless of whether you prefer to sneak or shoot your way through enemy territory, the way you move around should feel familiar to those who’ve played Human Revolution. The new control scheme takes a little getting used to, but the changes are well worth it simply for the way they fix the awkward shooting controls from the previous game. Other little beneficial changes include a cover-to-cover system where you can send Jensen scurrying from one conveniently placed box to another with the press of a button, an inventory system that allows you to stack more of a given item before needing additional slots, and being rewarded with experience for using the codes and passwords you find by obsessively digging through everyone’s emails and pocket secretaries. These little quality-of-life changes may seem insignificant, but when you add up all the small ways Eidos Montreal has refined the gameplay in Mankind Divided, you can tell they really wanted to make this the best playing Deus Ex yet. And for the most part, it is.
There are, unfortunately, some issues worth mentioning. While the entire game has gotten a much-needed graphical update, animation in most cutscenes is still laughably stiff at times. It’s not quite as awkward as the animations in Human Revolution, but it’s also noticeably behind the curve compared to other games being released nowadays. There are also some performance issues in the PS4 version of the game; the frame rate suffers in some of the busier areas of Prague, and I also experienced a handful of mostly inconsequential glitches during my time with the game. Sometimes, these glitches required a reload of my save file to correct, but as with most technical issues, your mileage may vary.
I’ve saved discussion of Mankind Divided’s story for the latter half of my review because what I have to say about it will likely disappoint some readers, and I want to stress that the game is still overwhelmingly good from start to finish. The main story is by no means bad, and there are some missions that I very much enjoyed, but it’s also far more black and white in the presentation of its themes and blunt in the progression of the plot than Human Revolution was. This is somewhat frustrating, considering that Mankind Divided is a superior game in almost every other respect. If you didn’t like the grayness of Human Revolution’s story and its “no real right answer” ending, you may actually appreciate Mankind Divided’s more decisive message and its unequivocally good/bad ending dichotomy. Personally, I was left feeling like it didn’t quite reach the bar set by its predecessor, and the ending unambiguously sets up for a sequel in a way that makes the events of the game seem like a detour.
There are plenty of sidequests to find in Mankind Divided, and most of them are very well done. These diversions can be quite meaty and often send you to multiple locations in Prague before they’re resolved. Completing these quests can lead to other quests later in the game, and the twists some of these missions take are quite interesting. My personal favorite is a murder mystery that Jensen gets swept up in toward the end of the game. I had my suspicions as to who the culprit was, but the ultimate conclusion was far more disturbing than I had expected. You meet a colorful cast of characters while doing these side missions, and in some respects they’re more interesting than the main story cast, though sadly none of the people you meet in Mankind Divided are as engaging or endearing as the cast from Human Revolution.
As someone who adored the synth-heavy soundtrack in Human Revolution, I’m pleased to report that Michael McCann has worked his magic again for Mankind Divided. There’s an immediate connection between the two games because of his atmospheric compositions, and while I felt like there were fewer standout pieces this time around, there were still some incredible aural experiences to be had. In particular, there is a piece that plays during your final hours in Prague that is simply beautiful and an absolutely fantastic mood-setter for the endgame ramp up. Voice acting is also well done, depending on your tolerance for fake accents and Elias Toufexis’ gruff whispering. There is a lot of ambient dialogue to overhear as you roam the streets of Prague, and random NPCs seem to have a far greater variety of things to say this time around, which is a nice plus.
Finally, there’s a new mode in Mankind Divided that can be played separately from the main game. It’s called Breach, and you can think of it as the Deus Ex version of Metal Gear Solid’s VR Missions. You play a “Ripper” who uses virtual reality gear to hack into corporate networks in order to uncover and expose their dirty secrets. Hacking involves loading your nondescript, polygonal avatar into small, virtual spaces where you must complete various objectives, such as collecting data fragments, eliminating enemy units, or even taking on dangerous super programs. The design of these areas is decidedly minimalistic and abstract, but the basic gameplay mechanics are nearly identical to the main game, so it’s easy to pick up and can be surprisingly difficult to put down.
As you clear levels, you gain experience that can be used to unlock augmentations for your avatar, and you also earn money that can be used to purchase various booster packs. These packs contain a random assortment of equipment (guns, ammo, etc.), modifiers (which you can use to either give yourself an advantage or increase the challenge), and other various goodies. Microtransactions do make an appearance here to tempt those who would like access to certain “premium” items, but in my experience it hasn’t been necessary to pay in order to progress through the levels.
Ironically, the thing I enjoyed most about Breach is the barebones story. As you play, you’re given Darknet Files, which are basically mini-mysteries you have to solve by hacking data and collaborating with your support crew to make sense of what you’ve found. The presentation of these case files is very basic — mostly reading documents and engaging in text chat with your support team — but the truths you uncover can be interesting and even disturbing. I’m glad that Eidos Montreal included these little detective stories; they kept me playing Breach far longer than I had originally expected to.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided had a tall order to fill. It had to be a successful sequel to Human Revolution while still being mindful of the timeline created by the original Deus Ex. In some respects, it was inevitable that Mankind Divided would suffer from “middle game” syndrome, but even though the story doesn’t quite reach the same heights as its predecessor, the overall package is still an undeniably strong follow-up to one of the best cyberpunk RPGs of the past decade.