When Deus Ex: Human Revolution came out in 2011, it succeeded in taking a long-dormant property and building on it in an evocative, streamlined way. It presented a fully realized world and used it to tell a small story with big implications. Like a lot of sequels, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided isn’t interested in small. It wants to tell a big story about big ideas with big powers and big consequences. The only problem with all that scope is that some parts of the structure are bound to be unstable.
Set two years after Human Revolution, Mankind Divided explores a world that’s post “Aug-Incident,” an event that occurred at the end of the first game where a mad scientist caused almost the entire cybernetically enhanced population to go violently insane. Many countries have begun to criminalize augmentations, and A.R.C., the Augmented Rights Coalition, has emerged to take up non-violent protest against their oppression. Augs, the most common sobriquet for augmented individuals, act as a thematic catch-all for anything and everything Human Revolution wants to touch on: racism, class divide, religion, identity. But like a little cyborg hummingbird flitting from flower to flower, Mankind Divided briefly touches on this vast field of assorted social and political issues without ever lingering too long on a single one.
At times, the game provides astonishingly astute commentary. One character points out how the police charged with running a FEMA-like forced residence for augs have, in the absence of oversight of an undesirable populace, become a de facto crime family, eager to extort and abuse their charges. Another muses that the oppression of the augmented population may have has much to do with fallout from “the incident” as it does resentment over what was once a method for the wealthy to buy means to further their advantage over the poor. But these are all just moments, snippets in the margins that never materialize into something bigger.
Casting such a wide net also means the game will engage in a few missteps. The most egregious is the already much discussed, and denied by the developers, co-opting of Black Lives Matter for a few A.R.C. posters hung up throughout Prague, where players, as the returning Adam Jensen, will be spending most of their time. They’re unobtrusive and can be missed altogether, but even so, it’s never a good idea to swipe the identity of a raw and ongoing social struggle and apply it to the plight of your pretend bionic-enhanced, super-powered underclass simply for a misguided stab at relevancy. Even a train station bombing, the set piece that propels the whole game into motion, teeters on the edge of good taste. No theme is off-limits for narrative exploration, but Deus Ex just hasn’t laid the emotional groundwork necessary to pull off a scene where Jensen attempts and fails to rescue a child’s parent from the rubble of a terrorist attack.
Throughout its muddied smorgasbord approach to social issues, Mankind Divided retains and builds on everything else that made Human Revolution such a pleasure. Even if the politics falter, the thought that’s gone into the game’s world design demonstrates Mankind Divided’s aesthetic success. There’s beauty in the contrasting old and new-world elements of Prague’s Industrial Baroque architecture, for example, as its rendered in the dull nickel and copper of exposed electrical wire. That juxtaposition is reinforced by returning composer Michael McCann’s moody synth score.
The game has a rich geography, as well, providing a detailed and believable account of how different nations rose and fell in the aftermath of the incident. Your hub city for the majority of the story is Prague, a thematically appropriate choice. Prague was home to author Karel Čapek, whose 1920 play Rossum’s Universal Robots first coined the now ubiquitous term. The city’s culture of puppetry is mirrored in the disembodied arms and legs that dangle from your doctor’s workstation, and the aforementioned internment camp is a Borg-cube favela made of impossibly stacked cargo crates held together with miles of power cables. It’s named Golem City, after the proto-mechanical being brought to life by Rabbi Loeb to protect Prague’s Jews. This is a texturally rich game world, one where Jensen is no longer restricted to traveling solely through a perpetual nighttime tinted yellow by sodium-vapor lights. In perhaps the most stunning addition from the first game, you can now venture out in the daylight as well.
Combat is strategic and versatile with an embarrassment of options allowing you to play anywhere along the spectrum from gleeful mass-murderer to peace-loving concussion fetishist. While the game still favors the non-lethal approach—all the combat abilities necessary to get the advantage in a fire fight are pretty costly—the variety of new ammo types and augmentations it introduces means the aggression isn’t punished too heavily. With either approach, a fully powered Jensen is kind of ridiculous; either dashing invisibly through the air to knock a couple of soldier’s heads together or hiding behind a Dune-like shield of scintillating fractal armor while shooting arm blades across the room. But what’s the point of being a cutting-edge experimental cyborg without indulging in flamboyant combat maneuvers?
Jensen’s new upgrades are a series of experimental and unstable augmentations that were installed, unbeknownst to him, while unconscious in the aftermath of the incident. It’s one of the game’s strongest additions as it works so well both mechanically and thematically. Were this a more focused game it would be a fantastic premise to dig into. What does it mean to be self-aware, but also vulnerable to such invasive manipulation without your consent or knowledge? As it is, the powers are introduced and the mystery behind them is shrugged off for the majority of the game as Jensen is just pleased to be able to fly a little bit now.
Mankind Divided is smart and dumb at the same time, approaching something of a narrative uncanny valley. It’s perfected certain features of good genre storytelling—the characters, the places, the look and feel of a fully realized world—to such an extent that what doesn’t work is noticeable and off-putting. It’s an eccentric, perpetually stoned friend who you can engage with for endless hours on anything and everything. Whether you choose to be bothered by their occasional assertions about chemtrails is up to you.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Reviewed on: PC