Those sections of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided being shown at E3 next week will demonstrate that the essential premise of the franchise, as offered up in 2011's Human Evolution, are still very much in evidence.
These include smart combat, stealth, puzzle-solving, exploration and challenging narratives. But now, one console generation and five years on, these elements all come with significant enhancements.
This game, due for release in August on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC, is certainly going to be one of the highlights of E3.
In Human Revolution and Mankind Divided games, you play as a protagonist called Adam Jensen, a technologically enhanced warrior who moves through the world uncovering secrets, generally by accessing forbidden areas and either sneaking past guards or by killing them.
In Breach, it's the same, except you're not Adam Jensen and you're not in the real world.
You are a hacker who breaks into the databanks of leading corporations. Their firewalls are essentially glowing, virtual mazes with, yes, puzzles and guards. But the guards aren't human and the puzzles do not obey every last physical law. This gives the designers and the players an opportunity to take the game into a quasi-fantasy direction.
This fantasy extends to Breach's aesthetics, which are sharply polygonal and very bright. The look of the game brings to mind Mike Bithell's Volume, which was also set in a world of futuristic espionage, though from a top-down perspective, rather than Deus Ex's first-person view.
Square Enix says the uncanny similarities are entirely coincidental. It's one of those situations in which creative people in different parts of the world come to a similar place at roughly the same time.
Breach represents a new direction for Deus Ex. This is a series that has relied on settings heavily decorated with detritus and grime, frills and ornamentation. Even when it takes place in minimalist offices, there is always visual elaboration to remind us that we inhabit a complicated, messy world.
In Breach, the only objects on view are those that are pertinent to the puzzle. It is sparse and direct. The levels feature lots of platforms and puzzles. It is a minigame that takes the essential formula of Deus Ex and simplifies it visually, while stretching it conceptually.
"When you’re designing a Deus Ex game, it’s very realistic." said producer Fleur Marty, who showed Polygon the mode at a recent press event. "Even with his augmentations, Jensen needs to be doing stuff that makes sense. With Breach, we got rid of that. We looked at abstracting ourselves from the constraints of the real world. It’s taking the core of Deus Ex and having fun with it."
Breach has the feel of an arcade game, with enhancements and upgrades that might come straight out of the Super Mario playbook. The protagonist earns double and triple jumps in order to get across ever-larger obstacles. "You start out in these very small levels," added Marty. "As you progress they open up and get bigger and more difficult."
Initially, Breach comes with around 75 levels. Developer Eidos Montreal is planning more to follow. Levels are based around some of the corporations featured in Deus Ex. The first three are involved in security, arms dealing and bio-engineering. The look of each of these companies' levels, as well as the nature of their defenses, is based on their activities. This ties puzzle-solving into the main story of the game.
"Versalife [the bio-engineering company] has a greenish hue, fog and weird-shaped levels," explained Marty. "Steiner-Bisley [weapons] has very straight lines and open areas, like you’re inside a foundry. It’s very orange, with magma floating around. We’re trying to always keep that minimalistic look, but give a sense of the personality of those corporations."
When asked about the visual similarity with Volume, Marty replied, "I’m a big fan [of Bithell's]. I was also a big fan of Thomas Was Alone. When I saw the first trailer for Volume, I was like, 'Oh, it’s Breach.' But that's cool."
In Breach, players must find their way to a target to collect stolen data, and then extract themselves back through the level in order to escape within a set time limit. This creates a more frantic end section of the level than the more exploratory incursion.
"We wanted to put a bit of pressure on players," said Marty. "At first we went a bit too far with that. As soon as you got all your data, the enemies were alerted and everyone was searching for you. For the stealth player, that wasn’t very satisfying. Now you can play it stealth all the way. But you have the time pressure."
There are also bonuses available for completionists. "There’s a strategic aspect to it. If you’re interested in getting all the data on a map, you’ll get a bonus, but you’ll have to look really closely at the map and analyze the best way to get the data and be closest to the exit when you get the last piece."
These levels have clearly been designed with speedrunners in mind. Leaderboards will be published to show who is the most effective at core speedrunning and who is best at extracting with all bonuses in the fastest time.
"If someone just wants to go through all the content, they can. We want it to be easy to play," said Marty. "But it should be hard to master. There are lots of different ways of playing the same map. For those who are interested in the competitive aspect of it, we have two leaderboards. We have the score leaderboards and the time leaderboards. If you want to be first at both you'll have to play the maps in different ways, because getting the best score and getting the best time, you don’t do it the same way."
But what of the main game? During the press event, Square Enix showed playable sections of Mankind Divided, including Jensen in his apartment, walking around a heavily militarized city, creeping through industrial complex backrooms, infiltrating a bookstore and taking out goons in a factory setting.
This game takes place a few years after the central and shocking event in its predecessor, Human Evolution. Augs are people who chose to improve themselves through robotic augmentations. But these mechanical implants are manipulated by evil men, resulting in the murder of millions of innocents.
Governmental authorities, acting upon a general sense of public terror, intern the Augs, creating a brutal division between humanity. Some of the Augs lash out via terrorist attacks.
Now, Jensen is working with a covert ops group put together by Interpol to combat the rise in global terrorism following the Aug Incident.
Through no choice of his own, Jensen underwent augmentation in the previous game. Although he's tasked with tracking down Aug terrorists, the situation is complicated by corporate intrigue and espionage.
Jensen's Augmentations are recognized by his own kind, but they see them as a threat. While their own improvements are decaying due to a drug shortage, Jensen's are gleaming with deadly efficiency.They include advanced armor, cloaking devices, innumerable weapons and an ability to jump large distances.
Players can choose the extent to which they use violence or stealth to defeat enemies. Either way, there are always plenty of options for progression, and lots of clever gadgets and augmentations at the player's disposal.
These augmentations — making use of each new power in particular circumstances — are the game's central strategic joy. Mankind Divided poses problems and gives the player multiple potential answers. The game's previous budgeting of augmented moves has been loosened, giving players more freedom, while retaining some sense of restriction.
Combat and movement are tied together so that players can swiftly glide between cover, taking down opponents. Progress generally relies upon planning and forethought, rather than run-and-gun, with nicely designed HUDs offering up all the necessary information. For stealth players, AIs are generally twitchy, challenging and well placed to observe one another.
This game also offers much more vertical exploration and movement, adding an extra dimension to stealth and to combat.
The action is interspersed with narrative sections that explore plot and character as well as world exploration that reveals places well worth investigating, not just for tactical reasons, but merely for the view.
Mankind Divided is a good-looking game that makes full use of varied internal and external locations, all of which manage to give the player more narrative information and atmosphere. At one point, Jensen infiltrates a richly detailed shop in which bad guys are destroying books. It's not subtle, but it works.
Puzzles are also back, which seek to test the player's ability to hack locks, move through dangerous areas or merely to find the most advantageous way to complete missions.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is the shining product of a group of people who love technology and are comfortable with its broadest implications in fictional settings. But as the game reaches for compelling, human themes, it ventures into dangerous areas.
In its marketing, Square Enix presents this division between Augs and other humans with a word that even the company admits is "risky": apartheid.
Polygon will take an in-depth look at this issue in an upcoming feature.
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