Deus Ex: Mankind Divided review

Game Info
Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Square Enix
Developer Eidos Montreal
Release Date Aug 23, 2016

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided developer Eidos Montreal was a team founded almost exclusively to breathe life into Deus Ex.

The series lay more or less defunct after the disappointing reception of 2003's Deus Ex: Invisible War and the sort-of spinoff Project: Snowblind. To revive it, Eidos Montreal rolled back the clock. Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a prequel that took Invisible War's console-friendly ideas and approachability and refined them, and the game tied it all together with a stunning neo-Renaissance aesthetic applied to a cybernetic future.

If you'll allow me the cliche, Human Revolution wasn't a perfect game, but it was brave, taking what worked in the series and simplifying along the way to tell an interesting story with breathtaking style and finesse. Now, five years later, Eidos Montreal has resurrected Adam Jensen in a world dealing with the aftermath of Human Revolution's augmented disaster. And, once again, Eidos Montreal seems determined to address the challenges that its predecessor faced.

In many ways, the studio has succeeded. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided shines as an exercise in discovery, in presenting players with increasingly complicated problems and a huge amount of ways to solve them. And its fiction holds it up, even as the ambition it suggests never quite manifests.

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Mankind Divided opens two years after The Incident — where a sudden uncontrolled psychosis in every cybernetically augmented human on the planet was triggered deliberately, causing them to violently lash out at anyone around them. There was bloodshed and unrest all over the planet, and once the dust cleared, the augmented who remained were looked at with distrust by the world around them. In the middle of it all is Adam Jensen, a former Detroit cop turned augmented government agent.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a (fill in the blank)-action-RPG hybrid, where it’s largely up to you as a player to fill in that blank. As you complete various missions, both critical-path tasks and involved side tasks, you’ll earn experience points that allow you to evolve and upgrade Jensen’s abilities.

If you played Deus Ex: Human Revolution, you may be raising your hand frustratedly, demanding to know how much more evolved (revolved?) Jensen could possibly be after two additional years of experience and refinement in his abilities, and the answer is, you get Metroid’ed — that is to say, Eidos Montreal contrives a series of events to, well, let’s say "factory-reset" Jensen’s firmware. Ordinarily this is a frustrating moment for me in action-adventure games that item-gate their areas, but Mankind Divided does a pretty good job of building a compelling fictional context for it.

This reboot forces you to slowly rebuild and prioritize Jensen’s abilities and tailor them around exactly how you want to play the game. There are typically three means of progressing through each area: combat, stealth or hacking. Occasionally you’ll also be able to avert conflict via dialogue. There are abilities to support all of these things — you can make Jensen a nearly indestructible, mirror-shaded robocop; a Gibsonian cybernetic hacker; or a mechanical Sam Fisher, à la Splinter Cell.

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There are options to improve reflexes, fall from great heights, jump higher, lift almost any object that isn’t nailed down and then some. The Praxis system isn’t as granular as more stats-driven games, but it’s enough to specialize without screwing yourself into an overly specific build if you’re smart.

That last part is important, because more so than Human Revolution before it, Mankind Divided isn’t prepared to let you focus only on one kind of play style. Each ability is a solution to a specific problem, and each mission is a collection of problems to solve.

Sneaky players who like to circumvent conflict by crawling through ductwork and access tunnels will probably need to upgrade their strength augmentations to move heavy machinery that blocks that kind of access, or to punch through walls in maintenance areas to keep off the grid. Hackers might still want to invest in Adam’s cloaking ability to stay hidden as they access exposed computers and keypads.

In this way, Mankind Divided is evocative of the exploration-oriented action-adventure games that use Nintendo’s Metroid series as a foundation — many areas of the game are inaccessible until you possess the appropriate tools to reach them. But Mankind Divided doesn’t make you find them. Instead, you can pick your tools, but it will be late in the game before you can possibly do everything.

That choice in how you proceed and succeed — and, in turn, how you screw yourself — becomes a big part of Mankind Divided’s uniquely rewarding progression system. Mankind Divided doles out experience for almost every task, from knocking out a guard nonlethally to finding another vent.

I’m sure that for some people, Mankind Divided will provide a cybernetic ass-kicking simulator, where they can be the black-alloy’d superhero killing machine of their dreams. Mankind Divided gives you all the tools to make that happen, and its combat fundamentals are pretty strong, a far cry from the rough basics in Human Revolution. There are even major augment trees dedicated to additional combat options. If you want to play that way — you know, as a monster — you can.

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But Mankind Divided provides a host of violence-avoidance or, at least, nonfatal options. It isn’t just possible to play through the game without killing anyone; it often seems like the game encourages it. As I got more experience, I gained new ways to explore the world and progress without leaving a trail of blood behind me.

Rewarding exploration and learning is the best kind of positive reinforcement for discovery in a game like this, and it scratched at some of my most compulsive habits by dangling information just out of reach practically all the time.

Mankind Divided’s fiction is one of its biggest strengths. It's a thoroughly realized world with some very high-concept narrative conceits — the augmented future, the disasters that result — but it also frequently gets into the everyday details of the lives of the people that live in that world. There’s information about the world everywhere, behind locked doors — whether mission-critical, just helpful or just interesting flavor text — and I wanted to see all of it. Every locked door in Mankind Divided was a dare to open it, to explore inside.

This is bolstered by Mankind Divided’s moment-to-moment writing. This is most evident in some truly great side missions found throughout Prague. Some of them feel much more fleshed out and fully realized than the narrative critical path, including an expedition into the most powerful bank in the country to find the secrets of the "fair and balanced" Picus media group.

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While a few missions take place in other spots, most of Mankind Divided unfolds across Prague’s various neighborhoods. And in a fairly large change for this kind of game, each neighborhood is seamless — you just walk into shops, or your base, or the Palisade Bank, or bars in the red-light district, without load times.

As I walked out of the aforementioned heist at the Palisade Bank, I emerged onto the street without pause and went about my business. It’s not that Mankind Divided is an open-world game — it’s not that huge — but it’s a more involved action-RPG with lots of mechanical experimentation and an emphasis on exploration, and it felt almost revolutionary to move around those spaces without having to stop (unless you have to reload a save, in which case, hoo boy, you might be waiting a while).

This has the effect of making side missions feel as important, if not more so at any given point, as the central storyline of Mankind Divided. Wisely, despite some insistent voice cues suggesting otherwise, the game will wait for you to do what you want to do. I’d estimate about 20 of my 30 or so hours in the game were spent doing side content.

That said, there were several choices Mankind Divided had me make that forced me to put the controller down and really think about them. Jensen often has to balance his needs to unravel the conspiracies he’s mired in with the basic human cost of inaction elsewhere, and Eidos Montreal seems largely unconcerned with my desire to feel like a good person who can fix all the things. Sometimes, compromises can be found and everything can be fixed, but that's rarely the case.

Consequences elsewhere feel organic in a way that defies more clearly defined win-or-lose conditions. Nonlethal doesn’t equal nonviolent, for example, and I was surprised to be confronted after one mission for my nonlethal takedown-heavy run that state police labeled "an augmented terrorist attack." I also didn’t expect to have my behavior in task force HQ pointed out to me by a nervous analyst in a conversation; more than in any game I can remember, I felt, well, caught in the act.

Coincidentally, I reloaded that mission and found a way to finish it in just a few minutes, without ever coming in contact with any police, all via cunning use of cardboard boxes dragged through a ventilation duct.


I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s frequent internal comparison of the plight of the Augmented to civil rights language from the last 70 years. But where advertising and social media promotion for the game made rather heavy use of these kinds of symbols, it’s largely absent in the game itself. In fact, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided doesn’t have much controversy in it at all, because it doesn’t seem particularly interested in saying anything. There are many awkward storytelling backflips that seem present only to avoid anything remotely resembling an opinion on prejudice and discrimination. Mankind Divided seems content to wear politics as set dressing rather than have any to speak of. You can draw your own conclusions as to any politics inherent in that.

If Mankind Divided has any major problems, it’s a difficulty in cashing the checks that its setting and narrative write.

There’s every indication that Mankind Divided will explore a global conspiracy, that it will seek to unravel both the mysterious Illuminati’s plans for the Augmented, and what happened to Jensen in the two years after the events of Human Revolution. Instead, Eidos Montreal is largely content to play in Prague, with minor detours to very limited spaces elsewhere that compose a small fraction of the game.

It’s strange, having played Human Revolution and now Mankind Divided, and being struck with a sense that the former was somehow more grandiose than the latter. The levels in Human Revolution were almost certainly smaller, allowed for somewhat less experimentation and were more segmented. But the game went places, both story-wise and geographically, and Mankind Divided feels like a yo-yo on a considerably shorter string.

But the most frustrating thing about Mankind Divided is how abruptly it’s all over.

I try not to exaggerate in reviews, so believe me when I describe my reaction to Mankind Divided’s conclusion as "stunned." There’s a host of story threads presented that are explored over the game’s 30 hours and dropped without comment or resolution after a fairly anticlimactic boss battle. Very little of the conspiracy Jensen is investigating is revealed, and by the end, there are few answers and a pile of new questions. There’s only a faint whiff of resolution, and the prospect of waiting another five years to see how Eidos Montreal’s mechanical augmentations ultimately give way to the nanotech dystopia of the original Deus Ex left me feeling pretty deflated.

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Wrap Up:

Mankind Divided's cybernetic playground feels fresh, even if it doesn't go as far as expected

I'm left hoping that Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s developers have an aggressive post-launch plan to continue the game’s story beyond its surprising endpoint. It’s a mottled cherry dropped on top of a game that otherwise makes for subtly major evolutions of action-RPG spaces, and for a world as interesting as Deus Ex’s, it would be a crime to leave it where it stands for another five years.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was reviewed in part using a non-final "debug" PS4 copy and was played to completion using a retail Xbox One download code provided by Square Enix. Polygon has not had the opportunity to evaluate the game’s day-one patch, and because of stability issues and a lack of opportunity to evaluate online aspects of the game, this review will remain provisional until we’re able to determine the launch state of the game. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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