Deus Ex is one of the rare examples of gaming franchises that managed to return from a long sleep with an entry that achieved almost the same amount of love and admiration as the first game, that was an instant classic. While Human Revolution had weaker story and a far more simplistic real world social and political commentary, in everything but that it felt like a game that was not just a strong return from a quite disappointing and hated by many Invisible War (which I like, fyi) but something that was almost better than the original. Stealth, action, social and exploration mechanics, most levels, most situations were so smart and solid, it was a joy to replay, taking a different approach each time around.
So it is to be expected that hopes for Mankind Divided, the sequel to Human Revolution, were high.You’re most likely aware of the reception the game has gotten instead. So let’s explore the game a year later and with all the DLCs. And let’s see what happened with the game that, it is currently rumored, has killed the franchise once again.
To get the giant cyberpunk elephant of the virtual room out of the way, the main gripe of the game — the story and the fact that it is not finished, — was not addressed to this day. It has been explained by many sources since the release, that the game was designed from the ground up to be the Part 1 of two-part sequel. A decision made extremely early on by the Square Enix management on the project and something that makes it impossible to «fix» the story of Mankind Divided.
The problem, though, is that even as a «Part 1», the story feels extremely weak and quite pointless. Should there ever be a second act to this story, I fail to see how players could learn to care anything about any of the events or characters involved. Whereas Human Revolution, despite the weaker main story plot, was still a strong world-building and expanding game, that showed a new chapter of this alternate reality augmented future, with focus on the rise of mechanical augmentation, hints at the global conspiracies and rise of corporations that will be explored further in the original game. Mankind Divided returns to the same time period, and all it has to say is «well, shit gone bad yo». When the events of an entire game are better reserved for the quick edited newsreel over few years, you know you made a pointless game. And even though, yes, technically there are big questions asked, and the game answers only some of them in the same manner a Part 1 of 2-part story would play out… I can explain the entire story of Part 1 in a short sentence without any important details lost, so perhaps there isn’t really a story to tell?
I’m not saying that seeing the connections with old events or old characters is not fun, however. But it all feels like an overly extended fan service holiday special that only series fans would appreciate, and even there — with a constant understanding that this is exploitation of the world they came to love. It is also quite curious how pretty much none of the new additions to the game, almost no characters, major or minor, feel like they matter at all, while the returning cast feels so much more interesting and more refreshing (as absurd as it sounds) than anything else in the game. Take one of the story DLCs as an example — System Rift, — ever cynical and arrogant Pritchard from Human Revolution was the most interesting thing about the entire thing, which is in itself just a big glorified story explanation for the completely pointless multiplayer in Mankind Divided (yes there is one). Almost none of the new characters, no matter how important their role for the game and the proposed Part 2 is supposed to be, are given any real time to shine or develop.
There’s a second reason for this, however, apart from the weakness of the script. Reason that is often brought up as one of the strongest points of the game, but I’d argue that it’s more of a double-edged sword. The main (and only) hub location of the game — Prague, — is packed with content asking to be explored. Imagine The Witcher 3. Imagine one of that game’s locations condensed into just 2 districts of the European city and you’ll understand what Mankind Divided’s Prague attempts to be. Not huge in terms of horizontal or even vertical space, but with each cm of that space full of stuff. Which will excite you, if you love exploration, and will consume a good portion of the entire playthrough of the game. And, in the end… might ruin the game for you.
Unlike the often amazing, fun and funny little stories you find around The Witcher 3 world, Prague in Mankind Divided is actually quite sterile. Actually, as a side note, even the music in Prague sounds like a boring rework of the Vizima ambient music from The Witcher 1. Don’t get me wrong — there’s a lot, and I do mean a lot, of interesting little stories happening in pocket computers, emails and, a cool but rare addition, little chats you can participate in to pretend to be the owner of the PC. But they never really lead to anything, never feel important or interesting and, after a while become a thing you skip over. And because of the fact that almost entire place is open for you from the start, and you level up as incredibly fast, you will explore the city and will be sick with it long before the game ends. Where people often felt tired by the end of the original Deus Ex, because it is a pretty goddamn long game, it was due to the insane amount of constantly new content — new places, new events, new characters. In Mankind Divided you’re tired by the overfocus on the same environment, characters and events for the entirety of the game. But I cannot not praise that such a thing even happened — to have a game with so much detail and content put into a small area that it feels ridiculous and simply too much.
It is surprising, however, how uninspired everything else about the game feels, though, further enhancing the feeling that the released game was simply unnecessary. Gameplay is almost exactly the same. Which isn’t bad on its own — the gameplay was fantastic in HR. But the problem lies in the events design — there are almost no interesting situations in the game, where you need to be creative, feel like you’re being clever or in danger, even if you focus entirely on pure stealth. There are a few good moments in the main game and all three story DLCs, some interesting environments and creative situations you need to overcome. A Criminal Past, for example, can be played through the entirety with all your augs disabled completely. Not that you often need your augmentations, of which there are more this time around, anyway. And the new augs feel so tacked on and unnecessary I didn’t use any of them until the very end, and even then I did not use them often.
Human Revolution revitalized the franchise, gave it a fresh new start, infused it with new ideas and was (and still is) a blast to play, apart from very minor issues. Since then the money-making machine was sent into a frenzy, trying to push as much stuff in the «Deus Ex Universe» as possible — books, spin-offs, merchandise. Mankind Divided is a product of this machine, lost in its little universe. It doesn’t exist because it has a new amazing thing to show. It exists because the machine needed to print more money and the template was ready. It’s new, it’s shiny, it’s more of the stuff people asked for. But nothing really is in there. It’s pointless at the core, just as Rise of the Tomb Raider was.
Which is why, to me, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is the lowest point of the franchise that, hopefully, will be revived again with as much creativity as Human Revolution had. Because Invisible War, the black sheep of the series, despite its simple mechanics, its short levels, its ugly visuals, had something new to say, so much that it felt like a pretty solid, if still weak, epilogue to the entire series. Mankind Divided, on the other hand, could’ve been about that day Adam Jensen had a shower, ate an apple and watched TV all day and it might’ve been a more entertaining game. It’s sad to be so dismissive of a very solid, very beautiful, very stylish game and it’s DLCs, but I find it really hard to suggest anyone invest any time in Mankind Divided.