The best works of science fiction serve to turn a mirror to the all-too-familiar issues that plague our modern society, and in that regard, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a razor-sharp looking glass. Using a small sliver of Prague, in the year 2029, as a grim synecdoche for world politics, the game reminds players how easily certain classes of citizen can be oppressed, and how quickly corrupt police and criminal gangs can exploit them. In this case, those being discriminated against are the Augs: humans whose bodies have been augmented with cybernetic enhancements. Instead of Black Lives Matter, then, there’s the Augmented Rights Coalition (ARC), which seeks fair treatment for all Augs. Instead of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, there’s talk in the United Nations about passing a Human Restoration Act and, in the interim, horrifyingly unsanitary internment camps like the Utulek Complex.
Mankind Divided allows players to walk, or stealthily crawl, or run with guns ablaze, well over a mile in the shoes of one of those discriminated citizens: the augmented Adam Jensen. Before long, you’ll find the standard gameplay interrupted by subway police that want to stop and frisk you, and you’ll have to alter your behavior around the easily frightened humans who won’t hesitate to call the police on you. Within the franchise’s nonviolent debate battles, in which players must choose the right dialogue with which to deescalate a situation, Jensen must be impeccably charismatic.
These sequences build a credible connection between players, Jensen, and the game’s overall plot, which dares to ask whether terrorism is ever justified; it also helps the game avoid the generic villains of similar titles like Homefront: The Revolution. Here, there are many ways in which to complete missions (including non-lethal ones), but no way to avoid the complex, difficult choices that emphasize the sad truth that one cannot always be the hero. It may seem easy to give that one-of-a-kind forged identity card to the elderly gentleman desperately trying to stay near his family, but that choice may haunt you later when you see what’s become of the young, idealistic artist that you condemned to the squalor of Utulek by not giving her the ID.
Mankind Divided feels torn, and not just between the story-centric campaign and gameplay-focused Breach.
Unfortunately, the intense focus Mankind Divided devotes to this single plot thread ends up throttling the game’s scope. Prague is the only area players can freely explore, getting lost seeking out drug traffickers in the sewers or finding shortcuts by leaping from rooftops into random apartments; here, too, is a wide variety of missions ranging from bank heists to serial-killer investigations. All the details of that interconnected city sadly show how limited the other locales are, since they’re all strictly interiors. These locations are lovingly detailed and distinct: a ruined Dubai hotel overrun with sand, large industrial drilling stations in an Alps-based research station, and a VIP party held in a major London convention center. And yet, the game’s recommended stealth-based approach rarely navigates directly through these environments, and as players will learn firsthand, all air ducts look alike.
While some of Mankind Divided’s more linear areas end up feeling repetitious, Jensen’s discovery of a whole new suite of mysterious, experimental augments at least allows players to execute those tasks with a wider variety of skills. Players no longer have to invest their hard-earned (and limited) experience points in legs that can jump higher, but can instead pick up a dash that allows them to instantly close certain gaps; instead of focusing on short-range takedowns, players can use a Tesla cannon to shock multiple foes at once. The old Rhino armor can be upgraded to the point at which it can stop EMPs and electricity; the new Titan shield can stop any explosion, point blank. Sadly, given the lack of content and opportunities to gain experience, players won’t be able to play around with all of these skills at once, and in fact, there’s a penalty for using Jensen’s new abilities up until the final third of the game, so it’s not until you start a New Game+ or grind through the game’s secondary Breach mode that Mankind Divided feels truly free.
All of this leaves Mankind Divided feeling like a game that’s torn, and not just between the story-centric campaign and gameplay-focused Breach. Jensen works for the Juggernaut Collective, a shadowy cabal of hacktivists, and yet the entire game instead focuses on the Interpol task force he’s been embedded within. Instead of working to expose the Illuminati first mentioned in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Jensen’s case focuses on a potential terrorist faction operating within ARC. It’s interesting, but it leaves the bigger plot threads hanging, such as the question of who exactly modified Jensen’s body, and why. When the game abruptly and anticlimactically ends after its one and only boss encounter, it feels like there’s an entire second act missing.