As trite as it is to pick a favourite, I still do it anyway, despite how arbitrary it is. For a few years now, Dark Souls has occupied the top spot in my imaginary, pointless list of preferences. But prior to Dark Souls coming into my life, that spot was inhabited by another. Deus Ex. The classic turn-of-the-millenium FPS/RPG hybrid for PC was, for a very long time, my undisputed favourite. The seamless blend of genre bending and philosophy really captured my teenage heart and held it tight until way into my 20’s, and it took something with real heavyweight pedigree like Dark Souls to slightly dislodge it from the top of my silly little illusiory list. As a result, immersive sims like Dishonoured, Prey and System Shock et al always make me sit up and take notice. Primarily because true immersive sims are such a rarity but also because I find the genre so absolutely fascinating. So it’s really weird, then, that I let Mankind Divided pass me by.
Despite adoring the kindly 2011 reboot/homage Human Revolution, I didn’t feel any kind of urge to pick up the latest neo-noir conspiracy epic. 2016 was a jaw dropping year filled with great releases. Games so good that they somehow made Mankind Divided seem somewhat humdrum in comparison. You don’t often get to make that kind of claim. Oh, a sequel to the best immersive sim of the last few years? Good for you Eidos. What else you got?
But I’ve been sleeping on the latest Deus Ex game, and that’s a huge shame. The strained, politically charged world of Mankind Divided is a richly detailed and sometimes accurate portrait of our own world, and it does things that the 2000 original did – things that Human Revolution missed – it takes common issues of the day, refocuses them and holds a mirror up to our own world, and sometimes, it’s a little hard to look at ourselves.
Following on from ‘the incident’ that occurs at the end of Human Revolution we rejoin Adam Jenson in a world frought with terrorism, “racially” charged politics and the series staple of rich people getting away with industrial scale murder and backstabbery. All of this plays out on the gorgeous but conflicted architecture of near-future Prague, where the old 19th century brickwork clashes with bright neon lights and sleek, angular millennial designs. The game has a tense, racially charged atmosphere that recalls our own real world struggle with racism but reframes it as a conflict of thought that has spiralled out of control – the idea of nature-versus-technology, of man-versus-machine… it has progressed to cold-war paranoia that threatens to rip Prague apart. It’s evocative of our own troubles in recent years with police brutality and race relations in the US. And despite the regrettable and sadly co-opted use of the term “aug lives matter” in the promotional material for the game (and honestly, the game is no better or worse without that phrase in the game) the sheer overwheling sense of oppression the game forces you through is so convincing and immersive. This tension permeates everything you see in game, from the architecture seemingly trapped between old-world regality and post-millenium smart tech, or the segregated metro entrances and random police stop and searches – that racial tension that is so prevalent in our world today is, for better or worse, reflected in Mankind Divided, and it’s a mirror that is as ugly to watch as it is compelling to experience.
It doesn’t really go any further than that, though. While the latest Deus Ex goes to some impressive lengths to hold your head underwater, it never really feels as though the game is daring to make any kind of deeper statement. It never has the confidence to say something meaningful in its duration and just relies on the great setting to carry the messages of the game. It looks great but if you peer beneath the surface this is just set dressing. And that’s fine. I guess Mankind Divided doesn’t really need to blow my mind to be enjoyable but it’s something I find hard to ignore. The setting is fantastic and certainly provocative, it definitely holds a mirror up to ourselves in a very compelling way but it never really delves any deeper than that. It doesn’t have the confidence to take the plunge into that deeply literary world that the original did with so much style back in 2000.
Despite the shallow themes, the setting is so good that it does much of the heavy lifting on it’s own. The world changes and evolves as the story goes on, with terrorist attacks blocking off streets and quests you complete altering the characters reactions to you in unique ways. An explosion in a store front shuts a whole road off from the player for several hours, with the scene of the crime changing incrementally as time goes by. Locations that you break into and mess around with will remember what you did and something will change next time you’re there, just a subtle change to acknowledge your presence in the area. Prague isn’t some sterile backdrop or film set like much of the locations in Human Revolution were – these little details bring Prague to life. That Eidos have achieved such an immersive world on such a small scale is really impressive. If you’re finnicky you could argue that the world isn’t as “open” as something like Skyrim but you’d be missing the point completely. Less is more. Much more. And every street of Prague is wonderfully detailed and actually responds to your input. It’s truly refreshing in a culture of 5 square miles of meaningless map icons. Every little street and doorway and sewer grate makes a difference, and the lives that populate the densely detailed apartments and bars intertwine with your own. It creates such an immersive world that it’s easy to forget how shallow it all is – the presentation does so much of the work that you almost aren’t looking for anything else. The clash of cultures that exist within Mankind Divided’s Prague is just as sticky, awkward and exciting to investigate as it would be in real life.
Prague, however, is just a hub map, and to say that the hub alone could be its own game is no exageration. The actual missions are a lot more wide open and free form than they were in Human Revolitions, which often limited the players movements to several small arenas where they had some freedom but not much. The wider spaces make a much appreciated return in Mankind Divided and as a result feel like actual locations as opposed to a collection of puzzles or room based environmental hazards. As is tradition for immersive sims there are a wide array of routes around the levels, each catering to your particular playstyle. There’s lots of hacking to be done, a lot of sneaking around vents to stay out of cover, and, of course, you can set traps for your foes and go in all guns blazing. Lethal or non-lethal – it’s all catered for. Personally? I like to play non-lethally and sneak around in darkness and avoid contact entirely, only breaking my vow of pacifism in certain story beats. Different types of ammo add a layer of choice to engagements, too, with EMP and armour piercing rounds available for different guns, as well as a variety of weapons mods and attachments – I found upgrading the weapons great fun even if I went hours without firing a single shot.
There are some stumbling blocks, and it’s not perfect, but I think this is a perect example of a game being greater than the sum of its parts. On the PS4 version I played there is some slight stuttering in hub areas. Not enough to get frustrated about, but they’re certainly noticable. Load times on console are also regretable especially if you’re like me and tend to reload sections a few times over to play the game the way you like to play. And there’s still an over reliance on the age old air vent as a means of covert movement. It’s very cliché sadly, especially when games like Prey have done so much to differentiate themselves from typical immersive sim design. Good thing there’s no conveniently placed audio logs, right?
When Human Revolution was announced years back, I regarded it with some suspicion. Deus Ex was one of my all time favourite games – nothing could hold up to that, could it? I was proven wrong, and to my surprise, Human Revoluitions turned out to be an excellent, albeit sterile, homage to the original. Mankind Divided doesn’t put much of a dent on the original in terms of pure brain food but it does try. It’s also certainly got one over on Human Revolution in it’s setting: A gorgeous, neon lit neo-noir that places you in the middle of a city choking on fear, terrorism and segragation. The game brings plenty of quality of life changes that make the formula a little bit more fun. It’s still regrettable that the new Deus Ex game arent confident enough to talk about philosophy and politics as intelligently as the 2000 original did, but I think this formula of game design is still so rare in the triple A space that it can just about get away with being a bit generic.