So. Many. Bins. It’s 1AM and I’m exhausted… partly because I’ve just spent the last 25 minutes in a Prague back alley stacking virtual dumpsters on top of each other in the hopes of constructing a precarious pyramid. No, I’ve not gone mad. I simply need something to stand on so I can reach the windowsill of a nearby apartment, whereupon I’ll hack a dude’s computer to obtain info on why Adam Jensen’s experimental new Augmentations are causing the part-metal man’s systems to overheat. Naturally. Welcome to Deus Ex: Mankind Divided - a game so alive with possibility, you can literally solve your problems with trash cans.
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Like its 2011 predecessor Human Revolution, Jensen’s latest adventure is a sci-fi shooter underpinned by heavy RPG trappings that absolutely revels in empowering you with player agency. Choices lay at your cybernetic feet every step of the way. Do you spend Praxis points upgrading your hacking skills so can sneak into enemy compounds without firing a single bullet, bypassing high level security doors with ease? Or do you beef up Adam’s biceps so that he can punch his way through walls or crush those pesky checkpoint guards with a conveniently placed vending machine? Decisions, decisions.
Providing players with open-ended scenarios that can be solved in multiple ways using a variety of skills has always been Deus Ex’s core selling point, and that remains the case here. Mankind Divided offers constant scope for on-the-fly improvisation like few other action games. In an age where developers don’t trust you to walk 20 yards forward without the assistance of a giant tutorial marker, the freedom and authority Eidos Montreal entrust you with is liberating.
Not that liberty is a word you’d naturally associate with the values of the world Jensen is forced to live in. Set two years after Human Revolution in 2029, the story picks up with Adam now working as a counter-terrorism agent for Interpol’s Task Team 29 in Prague. With the world now choked by bigotry, he's got his work cut out - there’s now a clear societal divide between unaugmented people (‘Naturals’) and those with augmented advancements (often tarred with slurrish nicknames, like ‘Clanks’).
Hate and fear are everywhere. The rain-lashed streets you spend most of the game’s 15-hour campaign walking through are littered with heavily enforced checkpoints. Police regularly (and aggressively) demand Adam produce papers, while police brutality towards downtrodden civilians is commonplace. Needless to say, this oh-so depressing backdrop feels all too relevant. The writers may lean way too heavily on the series’ trademark overuse of exposition, but Mankind Divided’s plot - which tackles class struggles, prejudice and censorship - at least tries to make you question your motives.
After you look past all that oppression, the first thing that strikes you is just how pretty Prague is. Sure, it’s not picture postcard, ‘Let’s book a long weekend there’ pretty, but this dystopian take on the Czech capital glistens with an alluring sci-fi sheen. Whether you’re hanging around the metro at Poutnikova station (where a gaudy superstore billboard greets you with a gaping mouth spitting out plastic pills that hang over the street like bunting) or being entranced by the flickering lights of The Red Queen nightclub, every cobbled inch feels handcrafted. There’s a real City 17 vibe to your surroundings, such is the conviction and sense of time and place on show. And really, comparisons don’t come much more flattering than that.
Away from the sightseeing, Mankind Divided continues to dip its toes into different genres. Sometimes it’s a functional first-person shooter, sometimes it’s a cover-driven stealth game, while often it’s a chatterbox RPG; Jensen frequently debating politics as he’s forced to make murky moral decisions in branching conversations.
Once again, it all falls back on making your own decisions, even when there’s no clearly drawn ‘right’ option. Do you give that counterfeit work visa to the sad shop owner who just wants to spend time with his daughter or the struggling augmented actress who yearns for acceptance? Alternatively, you could screw them both over and decide to snipe a corrupt checkpoint guard before either of the poor souls can make use of their dodgy documents. Guess which one I went for.
Enemy encounters thrive on these same open-ended design choices. A wide-ranging arsenal offers plenty of scope to take foes out with deadly force - be it the Devastator shotgun or the delightfully punchy Battle Rifle. Then again, if that do-gooder little angel on Adam’s shoulder gets the better of you, you can always plump for the non-lethal alternative. In which case the long-range Tranquilizer Rifle and taser-like Stun Gun are your best pals. Gunplay is never particularly precise, yet it packs just enough wallop that you’ll rarely complain when it’s time to go weapons-free.
Thing is, with such a wealth of powers at your disposal, guns can often be ignored entirely. The setup to a heist about halfway through the campaign is a prime example. Faced with an underground car park filled with guards and security cameras, it’s entirely up to you whether Adam brute forces his way to a bank manager’s sedan (which holds a crucial keycard in the trunk) or activates his glass-shield cloaking, invisibly sneaks his way into the vents, then switches the CCTV off by breaking into a nearby office.
Choices are of course limited by what powers you unlock with the finite amount of XP at your disposal. Completing story missions and a set of pleasingly fleshed-out side quests (like the previously mentioned counterfeit visa ring) earn you an abundance of Praxis points, but you’ll never garner enough to fully kit Jensen out with all available augs.
Even though Mankind Divided throws fancy new powers into the mix - like Titan armour that makes you briefly bullet-proof or electrifying Tesla arm missiles - I often stump up for the less sexy but more useful alternatives. Case in point: I fully upgrade Adam’s Sarif Series 8 Energy Convertor (or batteries, to us simpletons) so that I’ve got enough juice for stealth camo, rather than focus on the combat-favouring weapon mods that improve gun accuracy. Ultimately, avoiding firefights is always easier than engaging in them.
Likewise, I could easily spend Praxis on some fancy cybernetic leg prosthesis - an aug that lets Jensen leap a good 15ft in the air - but instead I decide to improve his hacking skills because locked doors often hide shortcuts or weapon lockers. Come to think of it, those jumpy legs would probably have saved me from building the bin monstrosity I mentioned earlier.
Sadly, for a game so defined by choice, the overall experience can feel, if not entirely claustrophobic, then half-baked and unfinished. Compared to its predecessor, Mankind Divided feels far less sweeping, almost as if Eidos made two thirds of a full game before pulling the plug on the final act. Indeed, I don’t know if I’ve ever been so shocked to see a set of credits hit. Not shock in the sense of ‘Holy sugar, I can’t believe how bold and surprising that last cutscene was!’ More ‘How the hell is this over?! I only thought I was 60% through the game’. Pacing-wise, the final few hours feel horribly rushed.
Length isn’t necessarily an assurance of quality, but Mankind Divided definitely took me a good ten hours less to finish than its predecessor. I wasn’t rushing, either. I finished every one of the game’s side quests, including one that took me 40 minutes longer than it should have because a mission-critical NPC kept getting his head trapped in a crate. Gah.
The shortened campaign also impacts Mankind Divided’s locations. Last time out, Jensen jet-setted between Detroit and the multilayered Hengsha island; two fully formed cities you could freely explore. Here, you’re essentially limited to Prague, with a couple of brief detours to the slum town of Golem and the Swiss Alps - both of which play out in tightly confined military bases, not open-ended hubs. It’s another way in which Human Revolution makes its sequel look more than a little small fry.
To pad out the package, Eidos Montreal has thrown in Breach mode: an arcade-like set of time challenges were you race against the clock to download data clusters. Styled like a stabby version of Tron, the bleached computer mainframes you dash around are often laid out like boxy labyrinths, and trying to make your escape as fiendish AI programs block doors and throw sentries at you certainly adds tension. Proceedings are further spiced up with Breach-only augs, like a decidedly handy double-jump. Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling the whole mode is barely more than a throwaway distraction.
There are some performance issues, too. Despite owning a frankly overqualified rig with two GTX 1080s and a Intel i7 6700, the game never runs entirely smoothly for me. Dropping a few settings from the highest presets - especially the texture option - helps, and I can nearly hit a steady(ish) 60fps at 4K, but heavy stutter in busier areas is never far away.
Dropping down to 1080p still produces regular stuttering, though certainly never to a game-breaking degree. Square-Enix admits SLI support is yet to be patched in, while Nvidia’s latest Mankind Divided ‘game ready’ drivers fail to give me a performance boost. Here’s hoping further patches iron out those niggly framerate woes.
Apologies for boarding the Cliché Express, but the latest Deus Ex really is a tough one to score. In many ways this is still the same thoroughly excellent stealth shooter hybrid as Human Revolution. At the same time it feels like a game, if not frozen in time, then perhaps belonging to a slightly different era.
Despite moving to the Dawn engine, the game feels mechanically near-identical to the last game. Seeing as Eidos has had five years to broaden the series’ scope, the end result feels unambitious. That Mankind Divided is also shorter and less varied with its locales than Human Revolution is also a bitter pill to down.
But (and this is a biggie) in its moment-to-moment action, Deus Ex still thrills because it affords players so much ownership over how they choose to play. If this gets priced at around the £20/$30 mark in a future Steam sale, I’d recommend it without reservation. In the here and now, it’s merely a good, slightly compromised sci-fi adventure that’s not quite essential.