Deus Ex: Mankind Divided takes place in a world of growing apartheid, where a social division between augmented people (those with technological implants) and non-augmented people exists due to events in the previous game, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Augmented people here are the pariah, a group trying to find equal footing in a society that fears and therefore tries to regulate them. Events in the game’s story are ripped from current headlines: terrorism, refugees, racism, police shootings, and government surveillance. Unfortunately, what was likely an effort at making the story in Mankind Divided more impactful instead ends up failing to create any sort of connection between the player and how the story plays out on screen. The story mirrors much of the game’s overall quality: high production values that can’t hide the fact that there is little to no heart, no lasting impact on the player, and no real challenge to offer.
Having so many of these social phenomenons packed into one story as well as one city – Prague – is inherently difficult to pull off in a subtle and interesting way. When combined with a boring story filled with tedious dialogue and with flat characters, like in Mankind Divided, the task becomes nearly impossible. The story wants to be part mystery, part thriller but the mysteries within aren’t compelling. The breadcrumbs leading to the reveal just aren’t interesting enough to make the player care about the weak payoff. The plotlines are told so straightforwardly, with characters often giving monotonic speeches on what is occurring in the story, that it becomes very difficult not to hit the “skip” button during dialogue scenes.
Drawing parallels between the real world and the game’s world could have paid off if their presentation in the game was relatable and sincere, but most of the time it isn’t. Playing as an overpowered and bland special agent who gets special treatment from authorities does little to show the impact of things like institutional racism on victims, who the game wants us to empathize with. On top of all this, the major characters in the game are some of the most boring and flat characters I’ve seen in a big budget game. The main character, Adam Jensen, is the prototypical male action hero – gruff, emotionless, and logical. In the previous Deus Ex, he was surrounded by a few characters with distinct personalities, characters who softened the blow that comes from Adam’s clichéd black leather wardrobe and dialogue. In Mankind Divided, everyone seems to be like Jensen: monotone, lacking any distinct characteristics, and just plain boring to listen to.
Of course, many people will hurry through the story scenes and get straight to the action. What they will find is a game with gameplay systems practically identical to Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Players can use a variety of methods – hacking doors and security devices, shooting lethal and non-lethal weapons, silent takedowns, gas grenades, platforming, crawling through vents – to make their way through the expansive levels. Skills can be upgraded over time in order to make them more effective, most of them the exact same as they were in the previous game. The few new skills don’t change gameplay in any significant way other than making it a lot easier than it would be without them. The TESLA arc lets you subdue enemies quietly from a much longer range than the previous game, while the nanoblade attachment takes out cameras in one quick shot.
Gameplay is polished, a collection of different systems that is fun to experience – but only to a certain extent. Everything starts off fine. You are sneaking around, taking guys out one by one, and hacking everything you can in order to collect items, weapon, and ammo. Quickly though, the gameplay becomes hollow. One reason for this is the level design. While the world is incredibly detailed and well put together from a visual standpoint, the layouts of buildings you have to infiltrate are less impressive. While the game does offer you many ways to complete a goal, these methods become repetitive, as there is always an air vent to get you past a room full of guards or a note to read that will give you a code for a door. Other games, such as Dishonored or certain Splinter Cell titles, do a better job of creating interesting level design where each mission feels different from the others. Mankind Divided fails in this regard.
Another issue that starts to show after a few hours with the game is the ease of the whole thing, which is thanks in large part to how badly the A.I. reacts to the environment and the player’s character. Once you realize that you can just repeatedly run up to every enemy, hit one button to take them down, and then pause the game to use health items if needed, the whole illusion of having to be stealthy or clever collapses in on itself. When searching for you, enemies can be outwitted by simply running into a room and closing the door. The terrible A.I. takes away any real punishment for getting caught and ruins the immersion.
Many of the design choices of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided leave the game feeling hollow. One example is how the item system works. You can pick up various items and weapons as you travel through the world but there are so many that soon you won’t know what to do with them. The game does allow you to turn some items into crafting parts which can then be turned into certain gadgets, but these gadgets aren’t much of a carrot at the end of the stick. The game could have benefitted from a crafting system that actually makes the player want to explore and seek items in the world. A second example is upgrading skills. The game asks you to sacrifice one old skill so that you are able to use one of the new skills. What could have been an interesting choice for players instead is a decision with little weight, due to the fact that there are so many skills to choose from anyway and the fact that by the end of the game, this restriction is removed and you’re free to choose whichever skills you want. In many aspects of the game, it seems as if the developers were too concerned with making a game that everyone could enjoy instead of making one that was distinct.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided isn’t a broken game by any stretch. It’s environments are beautifully designed and the gameplay, although easy, can be at times a lot of fun. The game is, however, impacted negatively by its inability to present any story or gameplay sequence that feels unique or interesting. Everything seems too familiar or too watered-down. Every bold design choice that the developers could have made is instead flattened into a dull and familiar system. While some players may find the gameplay good enough to make it through the entire game, most will see through the shallow design choices and realize that Deus Ex: Mankind Divided needed a little more depth and its developers, a little more bravery.