Deus Ex should be more confusing and probably not this good.
So many developers have touched the franchise since its debut 15 years ago that there's no way it should be this cohesive. Its original developer, Ion Storm, created two well-respected entries, Deus Ex and Deus Ex: Invisible War. But the studio that is often credited with creating one of the greatest PC games ever closed a decade ago. The man who dreamed up the series, Warren Spector, hasn't been officially involved for at least that long. There was a failed offshoot, in development at Crystal Dynamics, somewhere in the mid 2000s.
Then Eidos Montreal adopted the series and released Deus Ex: Human Revolution in 2011. The prequel, like its predecessors, garnered critical acclaim. It didn't match the gobsmacking reception of its predecessors, but its mix of action, stealth and its insistence on putting player choice at the center of the unfolding narrative put its squarely with the proper traditions.
Last fall, Eidos Montreal said it was working on a new game, which would be part of the newly codified Deus Ex Universe. They were unsubtle signals of confidence in the cyberpunk franchise's future.
This March, the studio revealed a sequel to the prequel, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. And at E3 2015, we got our first look at the game in progress. As curated demos go, it was an unmitigated success, showing a beautiful and terrible world filled with augmented superpowers, disrupted by the returning hero from the last game, Adam Jensen.
We'll all get to play Mankind Divided next year, but the demo left us wanting to play now. Which, of course, was the point — and assumes that what we saw last week was what we'd get to play in 2016. There was always the possibility that this vertical slice — a seemingly perfect mix of stealth, offense and branching story decisions — was a well-crafted fabrication. Was this real or aspirational? And if the former, why did its creators chose this 30-minute section to show off the new game?
We asked Deus Ex: Mankind Divided gameplay director Patrick Fortier about all of this and more. His answers, sometimes reassuring, sometimes surprising, offered insight into not just the creation of an E3 demo, but the continuation of a franchise he didn't start. He talked about what he fears Eidos Montreal could forget while trying to make a better sequel. And what it's like to make, in effect, two games in one scheduled to hit PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC in 2016.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is, to be blunt, gorgeous.
I knew what I saw at E3 was real because the demo crashed about halfway through. They restarted on the PC, and that actually wound up working to their advantage. The way its demonstrators worked it out, they spent about half the time playing stealthily and half the time with guns blazing. That's how Deus Ex (and a lot of stealth games now) work. You've got two options.
After it crashed, those in attendance at the private demo got to see the same thing we'd just seen, only faster. It felt like watching a master at work, a true stealth genius. For a guy like me who holds an unseen protagonist in the highest regard, it was fascinating to watch someone who knew the terrain and its enemies so well. He was in absolute contol.
So, was what we saw part of the game, I asked its gameplay director? Yes, but not quite as we saw it.
The sequences we saw, taking place on city streets, crowded public transit terminals of the future and large industrial parks, are all part of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. But we did some time-hopping, Fortier told us, to show off what they're working on. And he keeps looking up. Literally.
Perhaps the most interesting new augmentation — basically, an equippable superpower — in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is called the Icarus Drop. As with many things in the game, it can be offensive or defensive.
If you've played Dishonored (or have heard the word "teleport" before), you'll understand the idea. It takes players, as Jensen, from one point on the map to another instantaneously. If you're into stealth, this could mean thrusting from your hiding place on the floor into a ventilation shaft 10 feet above, unseen. If you're into the whole killing thing, you might consider using it to rip through your enemies. Literally.
It's no accident that it showed up in the demo. It's a way to show off one of the design cores Eidos Montreal is including in the sequel. Yes, there will be new augmentations. And they are designed around a taller world.
"Looking at our environments and seeing we have a lot of verticality, what do we want?" Fortier asked. "Looking at this augmentation to fast travel through the environment, it's like, this is interesting, but what about the verticality? What do we do with that?"
The answer is Icarus Drop. It's just like any of the other tools in a player's arsenal. You're free to do what you wish with them.
"That's how we design a lot of the augmentations in the game," he said, "to try to cater to different play styles."
As Fortier sees it, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided gives players tools. It's up to the players to express themselves. Passive or aggressive, sneaky or loud: It's your call.
In Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, players' options are in service of what Fortier calls "flow." And it's not just a philosophy. It's also a reflection of how he likes to play games.
He's making the game. He doesn't have the luxury of just playing angrily or stealthily. He has to do it all. And that's sort of a reflection of what most players do. As far as he can tell, most play a mix of stealth and action. His responsibility, he says, is to make both choices satisfying. For a developer to choose one over the other is a "trap" he refers to constantly.
Personally, he might prefer stealth in the abstract, but he's not the kind of player who gets spotted, pauses and reloads a checkpoint. He likes to see how it plays out. If he gets into a station where stealth is no longer an option, he'll bring out the guns. In the best games, he thinks, these things flow into one another, like a narrative wire weaving its way throughout the game.
"If you can make that wire unbroken from beginning to end, you get fantastic game experiences," he said. "So I like to try to cater to that as much as possible. I try to be careful. But sometimes I make mistakes. Or sometimes I want to express myself. Like, I'm mad at this situation, I'm going to take it out, and then I change my play style. Flow is really important to me."
In a sense, then, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is two games on top of each other: one stealth, one action shooter. And choosing to do one over the other means that you're necessarily missing half the content. If you never shoot anyone, you'll never really understand what gun combat is like. Obviously.
But there's no wrong or right way to play Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Fortier says. Whatever you want to do, that's fine by Eidos Montreal. Their job is to make your choice viable. He says he doesn't want to fall into the trap of making a game that winks at the player, knowing the best way to play.
So when I ask him if it feels like they're making two games on top of each other, he smiles.
"Yep. The producers hate us for it but," he laughs. "And I'm like, yeah, some people won't see it, and other people will see nothing but. That's the whole point of creating Deus Ex."