Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
Despite the controversy surrounding the ‘Aug Lives Matter’ promotional art, the initial premise of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is deeply engaging for me. This is, for me, what science fiction has always been about: reflecting on the issues of the present by reinterpreting them in the future. Given the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement (and its obvious parallels with the in-game movement) and racial tensions around the world, combined with speculative issues like synthetic humanoid rights, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided should have established itself as a highly interesting experience, if not a defining cultural work of our generation.
But it never follows through. Strong, political messages are still apparently too inappropriate or too risky for games; it’s fine to use one of the most emotionally charged socio-political issues of our time as a foundation for a creative work, but having any meaningful discussion as part of that is a step farther than Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is willing to take. Part of that decision is in service to allowing protagonist Adam Jensen to reflect the thoughts and intentions of the player; but because having Jensen be an impassioned supporter of Aug rights deviates from his single-minded devotion to following orders and unravelling a convoluted conspiracy, players are largely limited to choosing the shade of apathy that Jensen wears.
And that’s something that really irks me: Jensen, a man augmented against his will, is a perfect conduit for actually exploring the tensions that underlie the issue. Does he view his augmentation as dehumanising, or does he feel just as human and therefore rejects the claims he is deviant? Interesting, but apparently tangential. While Augs are being assaulted, extorted, detained, discriminated against, and locked up in ghettos, Jensen walks freely about Prague as if he wasn’tmostly made of alloy. He is the most augmented Aug ever—decked out from head to toe with outrageous abilities and lacking the need for Neuropozyne to stabilise his body—and the worst that ever happens is he gets temporarily stopped by police. Sure, the police trash-talk him as they check his papers, but they’re forced to eat those words thanks to his special Interpol clearance.
This is a textbook example of that naughty word: privilege. Jensen has all the perks of a super-body but none of the drawbacks. And Jensen seems utterly aware of it. When talking with Talos Rucker—head of the Augmented Rights Coalition (ARC), a man falsely scapegoated for a series of terror attacks, who must live hidden in a commune behind armed guards for fear of assassination, all because he simply believes augmented humans are still humans—Jensen can casually mention that he is ‘oppressed’ too. Yeah, no. He might not have asked for this, but Jensen certainly reaps the benefits.
All of this has left me feeling a little ‘mankind divided’ on the game itself. While the premise excites me, the execution reveals it as a shallow vehicle for what is otherwise a clever stealth-action game. The disparity between these two parts of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided are most highlighted when Jensen is forced to choose between two exclusive main missions: the first revolves around saving the life of an Aug with essential intel on the terror attack being pinned on the ARC; the second revolves around stealing important intelligence from a shady corporation via the means of awesome bank heist. Engaging with the narrative requires the former choice; enjoying the gameplay requires the latter. This disconnect makes it hard to appreciate the sum total of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, because it doesn’t really seem to have one.
Finding those secret passages, collecting pocket secretaries with passwords and scraps of narrative, hacking doors, and dispatching guards—these things are all super satisfying. Deus Ex: Mankind Dividedoffers a variety of ways to approach objectives and I almost always feel like my way is the right way—even if there are a half dozen other methods. The addition of a few extra augmentations from the last game provides some extra options on how to engage enemies, though non-stealth engagement routes hold little interest for me; the shift to a more shooter-oriented default control scheme was largely irrelevant to me once I no longer had a need for the tranq gun. And remote hacking is a much better way of dealing with robots than EMP grenades ever were, too.
But even the standard ‘open-worldy’ exploration aspects feel a bit off to me. In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, every area felt like it was, currently or eventually, relevant—there was some little narratives tucked in here, or this apartment is part of a side mission—whereas a lot of locations in Prague seem to exist solely as standard loot receptacles. I… don’t really care about finding my seventieth 10mm pistol, and I would prefer environmental storytelling that is more complex than ‘there are over one hundred cases of beer in this apartment; the occupant might have a substance abuse issue’.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided seems like a disconnected game; if any one of its main concepts was pushed to its extent, or if the two were united as effortlessly as Jensen is with his augments, then something magical might have happened. But magic and science fiction seem to stand at odds, and so Deus Ex: Mankind Divided remains only an enjoyable-but-unfulfilling experience rather than one that could augment your life.
This review was originally published at Impulse Gamer.