Saturday, 17 September 2016

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided - Review

Developer: Eidos Montreal 
Publisher: Square Enix 
Platforms: PS4 (version played), PC, Xbox One 

Deus Ex: Human Revolution showed that you could update an historical classic and still keep the fundamental core of the series in tact. Whilst it was by no means flawless, the combination of non-linear game spaces, a robust level up system and a solid, well paced story, ensured that the crappy boss battles and iffy shooter controls didn’t get in the way of what made the game good.

Mankind Divided attempts to continue in much the same way. It’s a careful, and in some cases, predictable evolution of the previous game; improving or altering only what absolutely needs to be changed and keeping the rest pretty much the same.

In some ways it makes the opening few hours of Mankind Divided rather disappointing. Three years since Human Revolution released and this is the same game, albeit it slightly prettier and with a few bells and whistles attached. Even the opening is paced in a similar way to the previous game, with a cordoned off tutorial mission allowing you to choose from multiple different weapon choices and to toy around with the various augments.

It’s in the story, however, that Mankind Divided attempts to push things forward. This is a direct sequel to Human Revolution, so much so it’s one of those rare modern games that almost requires that you go back and play the first instalment if you haven’t already. The developers are aware of this fact, too. Before booting up a new game you’ll be asked if you want to watch a recap of the events of the first instalment. It’s worth doing so, even if you played through Human Revolution.

This is because everything that happens in Mankind Divided is almost all a result of the climax of Human Revolution. Augmented people are now treated with mistrust and fear following the “Aug incident” caused by Hugh Darrow. Security checkpoints are now divided between those with enhancements and those without. Meanwhile, as augmented people are pushed further and further from society, some turn to acts of terror in order to get some semblance of justice.

It’s a potentially powerful setting, and it’s nice to a see a game actually deal with the ramifications of the previous instalment rather than carve out the sequel’s narrative in an episodic fashion. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is in it for the long haul, and its attention to world-building and immersion is one of its biggest strengths.

Granted the obvious political metaphors that run throughout the story do have the whiff of PR shock about them. Whilst the more games that deal with real, tangible issues and use gameplay as commentary should be commended, Mankind Divided regularly hits you over the head with its analogies, as if its writers are frightened you won’t get the point were it to go for something more subtle.

It’s a shame, too because the game frequently hands control over to the player., trusting them to be smart enough to make their own decisions. I’ve hung off until now to mention to the gameplay system because, fundamentally, it remains the exact same as the one in Human Revolution. Not similar, but outright identical, a literal copy and paste.

On the one hand, this can smack of playing it too safe, yet, Human Revolution had enough experimentation baked into its core gameplay loop that rehashing it here still gives players enough to play around with. It’s rare for a particular level to not feature multiple ways through it. There’s the obvious, up front violent approach, and a sprinkling of new gun modifications help to maintain the variety, whilst several different ammo types (regular, EMP and armour piercing), ensure that violent encounters don’t simply feel like the dumb option.

Stealth meanwhile, typically means looking for a vent and finding how far the rabbit hole will take you to your destination. Some areas fare better than others when it comes to their stealth design, with various levels being as basic as “find the crawlspace, problem solved”. Crawling through countless vents hardly feels all that much more intelligent than simply gunning down a room full of enemies

Hacking makes a return however and is what makes the stealthy route are more satisfying with its sneaky espionage. Cracking into a security hub’s computer system is always rewarding, shutting down all their cameras and security bots, or better yet, turning the security bots against their allies in order to create a distraction.

A handful of new augmentations are up for grabs, too, following an event early on in the game. Remote hacking, an in-built energy-powered shotgun and a new titan-powered defence enhancement are just a few of the new improvements on offer depending on your play style. Given the power level of some of these perks, there’s a clever little mini-game whereby for each you activate, you have to shut off one of your other unused modifications in order to prevent Jensen’s system from overloading. It’s an interesting feature, and one that ensures that each player’s experience differs slightly as Jensen’s powers are moulded over time to the player’s preference. It’s actually a shame when the game takes the element away later on, should you complete a particular side quest, allowing you to upgrade whatever you want with no repercussions.

Meanwhile, the lack of improvements in other areas does begin to grate. The energy system still results in a game that regularly dishes you out cool looking toys and bio-mechanical wonders to upgrade, only to take them away because you power level is too low that you can’t use them. It’s an understandable way to balance the game, ensuring that levels don’t become too easy despite Jensen’s abilities, but it creates the impression that, for all his skill, he’s a guy that’s powered by the worst collection of triple A batteries. Duracell lasts longer, much longer.

Still, this is a game that’s also played for its story and world, as much as it is for its moment to moment gameplay. The setting is a nice change. Prague’s police-ridden streets are a nice visual change from the sepia-coated skyscrapers of Detroit and Shanghai, even if Mankind Divided lacks the same tangible, almost hypnotic atmosphere that made many parts of Human Revolution so engaging. Other areas though, are sadly underused. Golem City, one of the last refuges for augmented people, is billed as a major element of the plot, only to be used for one mission and then never visited again.

Eidos Montreal know how to handle side quests, though. Far too many modern titles are feeling the need to fill their playtime with bloat and padding, even perfectly decent games fall prey to the Witcher 3 syndrome, as each new title is obsessed with bigger and bigger worlds at the expense of meaningful writing. By contrast Mankind Divided knows where to stop, its side missions feel like actual expansions to the core story, exploring its themes while spinning off into their own mini-tales and tangents, such as investigating the murder of an aug, or helping an underground newspaper get dirt on mega-corporations.

It’s the game’s core storyline however, that, by the game’s climax, ends rather suddenly just as things start to get interesting. An assassination attempt by a rogue element of an augmented rights group is the game’s big finale, and, whilst the “boss” encounters are handled better than Human Revolution (non-violent solutions, and even social encounters are practical alternatives), the game’s final cut-scene is little more than a drab bit of exposition via a news broadcast.

It’s a poor, clunky way for the game to end, and there’s a prevailing sense that Mankind Divided is holding out for future instalment. The game frequently comes across as more of the first act to a larger story than a complete, beginning, middle and end in its own right like Human Revolution was. That’s possibly intended since Square Enix has already planned for future games in the series. However, with story-based DLC already being talked about, there’s the impression that Mankind Divided might have held off on its true ending just to deliver it as paid-for DLC…

Other aspects raise a few warning signs, such as the shop that’s available on the game’s main menu, advertising bonus praxis kits and credits for use in a single player experience. This nickle-and-diming is already prevalent in multi-player games, so to see it encroaching in solo-based games should be cause for concern.

On its own terms however, Mankind Divided is a perfectly playable sequel, even if it does at times feel more like an expansion pack with prettier visuals. Provided you’re up for more of the same there’s enough here to warrant playing through the experience for those invested in the series, if only to become immersed in its cyberpunk world.


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