Genre: Action, RPG (Stealth)
Release date: August 23, 2016
Review platform: PS4
I’ve been a fan of the Deus Ex franchise since the first game came out in 2000. I loved its dark themes, its near-future setting, its brainy gameplay and the way it celebrated player choice. Though not a masterpiece, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is the best game in the series since the original.
I should note that I'm treating this game a bit like an indulgent parent. I really enjoy the things it does well, and I don’t have much trouble ignoring the things it doesn’t do so well.
One aspect of the game that I’ve heard a lot of complaints about is its compact setting. Most of it takes place in central Prague (with jaunts to Dubai and the Swiss Alps). Other iterations of the game have been as globetrotty as a Tom Cruise Mission Impossible movie. But I’m weird, and I actually really liked this aspect of the game. Why?
First of all, it’s Prague, which is an awesome city. And while the game takes place in the future, there’s a lot of old Prague still around. I didn’t recognize many landmarks, but then my knowledge of the city is pretty shallow. I did catch a nice glimpse of the Charles Bridge, though!
Why did this aspect of the game design appeal to me? Two reasons. First, there’s something irresistible about playing a game that takes place in a version of a city you’ve spent time in. This greatly added to my enjoyment of games like the original Deus Ex, which began with an encounter in and around the ruins of the Statute of Liberty! How cool is that? Then there was Fallout 4, which takes place in the Boston area. Top of this list for me is Fallout 3, because I know the District of Columbia pretty darned well. Having an epic battle with giant mutants in front of the (decapitated) Lincoln Memorial, and fighting feral ghouls in Metro stations I’d been in many times... well, that’s the kind of experience that reminds me why I’m a gamer.
The second reason I liked the Prague setting is that I actually like compact game environments, sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, I gloried in the vastness of The Witcher 3’s world and the majestic wastes of Skyrim. But sometimes it’s nice to spend lots of time in a unified area and really get to know it well. The last time I had an experience like this was Dragon Age 2, which all takes place in and around a single city. I’m pretty sure no one in the solar system liked that game as much as I did. I just thought it was a perfectly legitimate way to build an RPG: A big, interesting city with lots of stories to uncover and explore.
So, yeah, the Prague setting really worked for me.
Adam Jensen returns from the previous game in the series, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Mankind Divided serves as a direct sequel to that game. I’m not going to even bother describing the convoluted plot. Just know that it’s the usual frothy mix of conspiracies, terrorism and resistance to authoritarian regimes.
The RPG aspect of the game comes from Jensen’s augmentations. That’s what the “Divided” in Mankind Divided refers to. The story takes place in a near-future scenario in which some humans are “naturals” and others have varying degrees of augmentations, or “augs.” As you play through the game and level Jensen up, you get to choose what kind of augmented character he will be. Will he be better with weapons? Or will he have the ability to hack security cameras from a distance? Super punching power or the ability to fall any distance without suffering damage? It’s fun to design your character to suit your play style.
The best thing about Mankind Divided is the simple mechanical aspect of your adventure. The hallmark of the series is player choice. You can play it as a shooter or as a stealthy creeper. I love stealth games and my playthrough was total stealth. In fact, I played a “No kill” game.
I tried to do this in the last game, but the Human Revolution had a big problem: It told you that you could play a stealth style with no kills, but then it kept throwing boss battles at you. Not only did these missions require that you kill the bosses, but if you had poured all of your skill points and augmentations into stealth, you were seriously at a disadvantage when you had to face a boss.
In June, the game’s director, Jean-François Dugas, assured me that this problem had been addressed in Mankind Divided, and he wasn’t wrong. I was surprised, however, at the method used to solve the problem: The game simply has no boss fights. Well… I guess that’s one way to solve the problem. (I guess the designers never played Dishonored, in which you play as an assassin and yet can neutralize every assassination target in a non-lethal way if you choose to.)
Anyway, it was fun to have a true stealth/non-lethal path available to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I just love sneaking up behind guards and quietly knocking them out, or sneaking past them entirely. I love hacking into computers and reprogramming gun turrets and security cameras and laser grids. I love reading other people’s emails after breaking the security on their laptops. I love the whole idea of moving around through spaces where I'm not supposed to be. It probably says something unsavory about my psyche, but there you are.
The compact, mostly-Prague setting pays off here as well, because doors and computers that I hacked stayed hacked, and it gradually opened up the dense urban landscape to me more and more. Adding a new augmentation -- for example, the ability to punch through some weakened walls -- added to the places I could explore. Other augs that I acquired along the way would grant extra abilities, like being able to quietly knock out two guards at once, or being able to run silently.
Mankind Divided also is a big graphical upgrade from the last game. Specifically, the artists weren’t as obsessed with the color gold as they were last time. The game’s Prague is a gorgeous, beautifully-designed playground to enjoy.
All of this sneaky goodness and the dense Prague setting turns Deus Ex: Mankind Divided into a really engrossing game to play, mechanically.
The story and characters? Not so much. Elias Toufexis returns as the voice of the lead character, and he’s still doing a variation on that tedious, low-pitched, flat, everything-the-same-value, expressionless BS we’ve been hearing in lead characters in action games ever since David Hayter started doing it as Solid Snake in the Metal Gear Solid games. I’ve never understood why anyone fell for this. Even Christian Bale copied it for his Batman voice. Anyway, this colorless performance does nothing to pull you into what could be a charismatic character.
For the record, the other actors in the game acquit themselves much more professionally and entertainingly.
The story, too, is straight by-the-numbers stuff. It serves, but it doesn’t inspire or intrigue.
But the weak-sauce voice acting by the lead actor and the pedestrian story don’t really harm the game that much. I can easily recommend it for stealth gameplay fans because breaking and entering in near-future Prague is just so damned fun.
+ Very solid stealth gameplay if you choose that play style
+ Lots of player choice
+ Terrific graphics
- Forgettable story
- Boring VO acting in lead character