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Deus Ex: Mankind Divided lets your choices define you in its oppressive world

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided presents you with a dystopian near-future world, just as its predecessor did. The game's vision of the year 2029 isn't just bleak; it's literally grimy, with once-gleaming metropolises like Dubai now falling apart. It's a result of what's come to be known as the "Aug Incident" — an event that occurred two years prior, during 2011's Deus Ex: Human Revolution, in which cybernetically augmented humans around the globe lost control of their minds and went on killing sprees — and regardless of whether you're augmented, things aren't going very well on planet Earth.

Comparing developer Eidos Montreal's Deus Ex titles to the first three Star Wars films — and, accordingly, suggesting that the studio will eventually make another one of these games — game designer Antoine Thisdale told Polygon that Mankind Divided is "a bit of The Empire Strikes Back" of the series. Thisdale continued with the dark-middle-chapter analogy, saying that Mankind Divided is "not meant to be a pretty, happy game."

Thisdale was speaking in an interview with Polygon following a presentation of two abbreviated gameplay demos from Mankind Divided, one from the start of the game and another from well into it. Both were videos of prerecorded playthroughs; we didn't see live demos or get to play the game ourselves. The clips offered a look at the dreary but colorful world that Eidos Montreal is building, and at the new tricks that Adam Jensen is hiding up the sleeves on his augmented arms.

Mankind Divided turns Jensen loose as a free agent. He's working with Task Force 29, a covert ops group put together by Interpol to combat the rise in global terrorism following the Aug Incident. The relationship between augmented individuals and so-called natural humans was a powder keg waiting to explode, and the Aug Incident provided a match, turning the world against "augs." By 2029, people who have augmentations — whether by choice or not — are forced to live on the fringes of society in segregated enclaves. And some of them are lashing out.

Thisdale began with a look at Mankind Divided's tutorial level, which takes place in Dubai. The golden-tinged sunset serves as a visual metaphor, according to Thisdale. The color gold represents augmented humans in Eidos Montreal's Deus Ex games, and with the sun setting on the crumbling crown jewel of the Middle Eastern desert, Mankind Divided lays out the tough times that transhumans are dealing with.

Task Force 29 is brought into Dubai to oversee a black-market augmentation deal, and the transaction goes awry when a group of augs uncloak themselves and start shooting. Clad in black with gold masks hiding their faces, these individuals are some of the key antagonists of Mankind Divided, according to Thisdale.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided - Gamescom screenshot 03 1920 Eidos Montreal/Square Enix

The second clip took us to Prague, where Jensen is hot on the trail of the Dvali organized crime family. Thisdale pointed out that unlike the warm hues of Dubai, the Czech capital is bathed in a cool bluish cast, highlighting the dominance of non-augmented humans. Just like Human Revolution's Lower Hengsha and Upper Hengsha, the settings for Mankind Divided are designed to help tell the game's story.

Here, Jensen alternates between stealth and a more guns-blazing approach. He kills some guards at the Dvali Theater with guns and with his Tesla gun arm. While sneaking around, he initiates takedowns directly from cover, a move that will usually hide an enemy's unconscious body in the process. And he knocks out a group of thugs with a non-lethal version of the Typhoon Explosive System, a special attack seen in Human Revolution.

This is at the heart of Eidos Montreal's changes to the Deus Ex formula in Mankind Divided: an expansion of player freedom. Many of the augmentations available in Human Revolution were obviously geared toward either a lethal approach (the Typhoon) or a stealthy strategy (cloaking). Thisdale said that the developers used telemetry data from the previous game to track players' usage of particular augmentations, and realized that some were much less popular or useful than others. Instead of removing them, the studio redesigned them to provide more options to players, and to make all of those choices viable in Mankind Divided.

Asked about Human Revolution's much-derided boss battles, Thisdale also pointed to this design approach as a way to improve those encounters. Mankind Divided will offer augmentations that have very specific use cases, like unique ammo types that are effective against a particular type of enemy. Even the Tesla gun arm can be used non-lethally. Those kinds of choices will affect "how you negotiate those tougher enemies," said Thisdale. And as Eidos Montreal said earlier this year, it'll be possible to complete Mankind Divided without killing anyone — even bosses.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is set for release Feb. 23, 2016, on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.