Here’s the difficulty Mankind Divided faces: 2000 was a good year (not to be confused with ‘Russell Crowe inherits a vineyard’ movie A Good Year) for videogames. Tomb Raider. The Sims. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2. Shenmue. Hitman. The Powerpuff Girls: Bad Mojo Jojo. And everyone’s favourite sunglasses-at-night vehicle (take that, Men In Black), Deus Ex.
The best of the bunch - cue a flood of hate mail from Shenmue 3 backers - it combined a mature, twisting storyline with brilliant world-building, and one of the most impressive opening levels gaming had ever seen. But its biggest impact, and the main reason why the game continues to top ‘best of all-time’ lists up and down the internet, resulted from its pioneering approach to player choice.
If you're not big on reading, take a look at our Deus Ex: Mankind Divided hands-on impressions video instead.
How you specced your own JC Denton directly changed how you could tackle objectives, and your decisions dictated whether you ended up playing a shooter, a stealth game, or something in between. Exploration and invention were rewarded, and player agency had a tangible effect. Foundations were laid.
But in doing what it did so well, Deus Ex also created a problem. And in fact, so ahead of its time was what Warren Spector and Harvey Smith came up with, that it’s a problem which we’ve only felt the full force of in recent years, nearly a decade and half on from release. So many games now seem to feel obligated to indulge player choice and promote this ‘pick your path’ approach, whether it suits them or not. Even series which made their name as staunchly linear, cinematic experiences (here’s looking at you, COD) have attempted it.
Some have done it very well. Others have not. And this year we have perhaps seen the purest distillation thus far, in gameplay terms at least, in the form of The Phantom Pain. But so often that advertised breadth of choice in fact boils down to one binary decision: go loud or stay hidden. ‘Play your own way’ is the promise. Hide in the grass/vents/shadows or shoot the men is the reality.
“A lot of games like to explore the idea of choices, but not a lot of games and development teams explore the idea of consequences.” These are the words of Patrick Fortier, gameplay director on the latest title to bear the proud Deus Ex name: Mankind Divided. “I can give you a lot of choices, but then how do I deal with the actual consequences? How does it makes sense in the world? As a player I’m going to go back and validate these sort of things to make sure what happened, happened.”
Fortier is talking at Eidos Montreal’s headquarters, shortly after the game has been opened up to selected press to play for the first time. We’ve been granted two levels to try over the course of several hours, and are encouraged to replay each multiple times in order to - you guessed it - choose our own approach.
“We crave that - we like that challenge,” he continues. “We find that that’s our [equivalent of] big explosions; it’s our set-pieces. You can go and make a choice and go back and see people talking about it on the streets. Something that you had an integral part with. Sometimes we don’t always succeed all the way that we would want to; we’d want to go really, really far into it. But we go through the effort and challenge ourselves, and go as far as we can.”
The issue, then, is one which can be split. On the one hand - and this is what Fortier is speaking to - there are the narrative choices that games ask you to make. These are the decisions that affect endings, or which factions you side with, or which characters live or die. But then there are the micro, moment-to-moment choices; the ongoing sneak vs. shoot debate.
Both can feel arbitrary, but maybe that’s not a problem. “We’re fundamentally a game about player choice and player expression, and if we’re going to offer choice, then it needs to be a fair choice. You really need to be able to decide what you want to do, and have a real opportunity to do it.” Why you do it is up to you, the point is simply that you can.
And in terms of the gameplay dynamics, Mankind Divided certainly does provide a wealth of options. Based on several hours hands-on time, it doesn’t seem that Eidos Montreal are attempting to reinvent the wheel in the wake of Human Revolution, or break the basic template.
Even the names of the save game files I was presented with - Stealth, Combat, and Balanced - attest to that. If you spec Adam Jensen out with stealth in mind then you’ll be clambering through air ducts, hacking into cameras and computer terminals, and dispatching guards from the shadows with your cybernetic super-arms. Opt for brawn and it’s shields, area-of-effect projectiles, and exploding blades fired from said super-arms.
The latter of the two levels that I got to test out was set in Prague, towards the midpoint of the game, and clearly highlights how different routes through a level are opened up or closed off depending on the upgrade path that you’ve decided upon. The objective is simple: break into an office deep inside a theatre in order to search for information.
Entering via a nearby tunnel each time, the obstacles facing me are consistent: a number of patrolling guards in the street leading up the to main entrance, a big bipedal mech pacing back and forth, as well as a sniper located on the roof. Stealth is up first - always my initial instinct - and my loadout has provided me with a tranquilliser rifle, a pistol, some gas grenades, and an EMP mine. But more interesting, as ever, are the available augmentations.
I have five: Smart Vision (see enemies through walls), TESLA (incapacitate bad dudes with a blast of electricity), Typhoon (fire out a 360° arc of projectiles), the Glass-Shield Cloaking System (turn invisible thanks to your fancy suit), and Leg Silencers (these silence your legs). All augmentations require power, displayed via a meter in the top left of the screen. It will partially recharge over time, but proper replenishment comes in the form of Biocells which can be found throughout levels.
The section of Prague that has been opened to me is small (the map screen reveals that the full level is far larger), but it’s immediately clear that there are multiple ways to get to the target location. Last on my list, given the kit available to me, is to try the front door. A path around the side seems much more appealing, so I venture into a nearby subway, using the Cloaking System to stay hidden as I move from cover.
As I reach the rear of the theatre a guard on patrol feels the wrath of my tranq gun, and I then stumble across a conveniently placed scissor lift. It requires a Biocell to power up, but I consider that a small price to pay for a helping hand to an inevitable rooftop entrance.
And so it proves. Another couple of guards and an excitable camera (which can be dealt with via the Remote Hacking ability) are on the lookout, but soon I’m in the familiar haven of a vent and making my way inside. Once there I find several ways to proceed. Some require Jensen to punch through walls, which my pacifist build is far too feeble to do.
One needs me to have the Icarus Dash (think Dishonored’s Blink) in order to clamber across the theatre’s rafters. I opt for minimal conflict, maximum cowardice: I fire up my Glass-Shield, sneak unseen through the lobby and into the backstage area via a side corridor. From there it’s just a short crawl to my objective, past a gaggle of guards gathered at a dressing room table.
It’s all fairly undramatic and swift, such are Jensen’s capabilities and efficiency. But as I take the time to explore the level more leisurely on subsequent playthroughs, alternatives become evident. There are two additional routes up to the roof in the alley from which I entered. There is another way up on the opposite side. There is a window leading into a security office. And then there's that front door…