Deus Ex: Mankind Divided: Augmented separation
Updated: Jul 21, 2020
Warning: I will be talking about Deus Ex’s political theming and race metaphor as it relates to the narrative. I will be talking historical instances of racism (Jim Crow and Apartheid South Africa) due to historical parallels drawn in Mankind Divided's story. Thank you.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was a somewhat controversial entry into the venerable Deus Ex series. Be it the marketing or that Augment your pre-order nonsense. Click here to check it out the following videos and Eurogamer’s article on the subject. However once the dust on all the bullocks settled, what were we left with? Well to put it mildly, a perfectly fine game that has good ambition. But not enough space to explore or add much impact. It’s perfectly fine but never the less underwhelming as a whole.
Following the traumatic climax at the end of the first game (Human Revelation). All augmented citizens are treated with fear and suspicion. The UN is in this mists of passing a controversial law that could see all Augs being forced to remove augments. To make matters worse. A number of terrorist attacks, supposedly orchestrated by the pro Aug Augmented Rights Coalition (ARC) have occurred. Adam Jensen, an Augmented agent has to prevent the terrorist attacks and find a way to stop the Illuminati (that exists) from furthering their own agenda.
A little brief history lesson
Deus Ex Mankind Divided draws upon a number of real historical events. The two most prominent ones being Apartheid South Africa (1948-1994) and Jim Crow laws in Southern America (1865-1965). Both dealt with segregation of the other from the ruling minority (South Africa) or majority (America). The disenfranchised were typically mistreated and demonised by the ruling race, subjected to humiliating pass checks and separation from every single part of society.
Any attempts to fight for basic human fights were aggressively shut down (SA- Sharpeville massacre for example). Resulting in many freedom parties (ANC) committing acts of domestic terrorism in their fight for freedom. Please look up the uMkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) for further reading. You might ask why I am bringing up these historical injustices, and events in the contexts of a video game review. Simply put, Mankind Divided uses a number of parallels between its narrative and real life events. The fallout that still haunts the respective countries to this day.
They are as a result very tricky to do well and to do in a nuanced fashion. ARC is practically the ANC but with more robot arms. Prague is 20th century Johannesburg but science fiction. Golem city might as well be a worse version of red-lined Baltimore or Lavender Hill. When you are trying to talk about historical injustice through speculative fiction. You need to understand the social/political/economic ramifications without being preachy or tone deaf. Mankind Divided is able to succeed with this to an extent. But it’s core metaphor just doesn’t make sense in it’s execution.
Race metaphor: it doesn’t make sense
Say for the sake of argument, if Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela were actually cyborg warriors, who could become indestructible or were able to turn their bodies into superhuman Swiss army knives. Do you think the Jim Crow south would be able to oppress them? Hell would you think oppression would be possible if the majority South African population would be able to become killing machines with some easily accessible augments? The reason I ask these questions is because if you cannot, then imagine considering how believable the race metaphor is in Mankind Divided, because it honestly is not.
When I see Adam gaining the power to turn invisible as one of the non unusual augments, or seeing my opponent become near invincible. I just wonder how the humans are still in charge. The augmented population can become more powerful than most military grade hardware. They can easily overwhelm the human oppressors (they can’t even turn invisible let alone their arms into machine guns). It is also absurd as augmentations can be opted into and out of. I doubt any of the ANC members would have wanted to have been born second class citizens.
For more evidence of an overpowered underclass please look at the announcement trailer (Source: Playstation youtube channel)
Nor would I suspected they would have wanted to have remain oppressed if they could become part of the privileged class. Yet in Mankind Divided you can do exactly that. You meet a character who had his augmentations removed after the traumatic climax. So not only we have a race metaphor were the oppressed are superhuman powerhouses, that can become walking demolition trucks at a moment’s notice. But they also can decide to not be part of the underclass whenever they want.
If the augmented were say aliens, the race metaphor might have worked better. This is because instead of opting into augmentations, they are born into a disadvantaged class and they do not have superpowers. This would keep the speculative fiction metaphor, and have it internally and externally make sense as an oppressed underclass. Please view District 9 for an example of this. I do respect for what was attempted and considering the result, it was not bad. Mankind Divided's convoluted lore might have made sense to the dev team. But the metaphor falls apart once you look at it deeply.
What I do find rather fascinating, is how Mankind Divided depicts the media. Picus Group is the sole producer and distributor of news (truth) to the masses. You cannot escape Picus Group’s influence, every single screen in every single shop and building has the latest news being broadcast. This subtle commentary on mainstream media is fascinating and scary. The little ways Eliza Cassan tells the audience what to think, the little ways she demonizes the already demonised. All while presenting the illusion of fair and unbiased reporting. I will leave you to decide which mainstream news station Picus Group fits into. But in a game filled with clumsy and misguided commentary on very relevant topics, Picus News is one great example of social political commentary.
The story in buildings
The environmental design is brilliant at world building. Prague itself (an original setting in science fiction by the way) is rife with political and social commentary. Be it the stark contrast between the wealthy and clean human (naturals) parts of Prague and squalid, broken and heavily militarised aug secretors. Graffiti from both sides of the debate demonise or praise the other. News broadcasts detail the impending total removal of Aug people. You are randomly stopped in the streets for condescending examinations and verbal abuse. Mankind Divided really does a good job of depicting a society in the edge of catastrophe. Not to mention offering the player insight into what a pass system would have been like when they otherwise might not have been able to.
Adam’s cool shades
Adam Jensen as a character has the potential to be interesting, he is one of the augmented who is trying to survive in an increasingly hostile world. He is also torn between allying with the militant police force who hate him and the Aug terrorists who might be not as bad as portrayed. Jensen has the possibility of being a great character trying to navigate a complex (often morally gray situation) while not becoming a bad person.
The problem is small but never the less significant to the audience identifying with Jensen. His cool shades severely limit his emotional range. When he is wearing them (which is almost all the time) his features are frozen in a stiff frown. It doesn’t help that his gravelly voice further limit expression, he just sounds permanently gruff and stoic. It is a shame as when we are allowed to see his eyes they are very expressive. Every time I could see his eyes, I was more invested then I would be with the shades. In an effort to make Adam cool, Square Enix made Adam rather weak as a protagonist due to lack of emotional expression.
As with most immersive sims, there are a number of play styles and ways to approach the many problems Deus Ex throws at you. I am lying a little, there are only really two main gameplay choices, stealth or FPS. While you can specialize in either one or the other, I found myself adapting to whatever the situation requires. I initially started as a FPS run but I found myself changing to a stealth run. The main reason is because I just found the stealth gameplay satisfying and enjoyable then the gunplay. That isn’t to say that the gunplay is bad, far from it. I found it perfectly enjoyable and functional but nothing really special.
Hack the planet
To quote a certain character in Overwatch “Everything, and everyone can be hacked.” Adam Jensen can hack anything from security safes to alarm systems. A basic system where you have to capture the green nodes in order to hack successfully. Unlike other hacking minigames (Bioshock for example) where all you have to do is join the dots. Deus Ex mixes it up with a rising challenges (each node captured increases the chance of getting noticed). These include the number of modifications (keeping yourself hidden or increasing the speed of capture etc). This allows for strategy as well as the thrill nearly being discovered (and the panic of the failure state). The player has to think more deeply then just pressing buttons and moving blocks.
Right up until the final section of the game, selecting which augmentations (skills) was something of a balancing act. The more overpowered augmentations require you to shut down one of your other augmentations in order to prevent glitches (adverse side affects). I enjoyed this, as it prevented you from becoming a god (from a gameplay perspective) and completely breaking the game. I personally went with only one single “special augment” (short range blink called icarus dash) as it was the most consistently useful one.
That might have been a mistake as it made the game considerably more difficult. But I had a more enjoyable experience none the less, I don’t like being too overpowered. This is what I was concerned about when that restriction was removed. However the limited upgrades more or less cancelled it out. The restriction seemed rather unnecessary when the upgrades could have been spaced out better to prevent imbalance.
Prague and other cities
Prague is the only hub city and it is a small one at that. Missions that take place in outside of Prague are very linear to semi open hubs. Some have claimed that the level design is a let down, a pale imitation of the original Deus Ex. That might be true, but I think it would be very unfair to dismiss Mankind Dividend’s level design just because it might technically be inferior. Prague itself offers a wide range of places in terms of getting to and from points of interest. One such example would be when Jensen is trying to save someone from a gang who has laid stage to the shop. Jensen can either engage in a gunfight (confrontation) or use the nearby sewer system to doge the gang entirely (stealth) .
Mankind Divided was built around the two main ways and it very satisfying either way. Prague as well is extremely rewarding to just explore. Even when there is nothing of value (ammo, upgrades etc) there is a story in every room. Be it Adam finding a corpse with an empty gun or a laptop with emails filled with desperate, unrequited love. The player is rewarded for exploring and experimenting with different routes. Even in the more linear missions , exploration is still encouraged for the player to adapt to whatever Deus Ex throws at them. Please check out this Gamasutra article on the subject. It is fascinating.
The AI is not the most smart of AIs I have encountered in my time. They really don’t seem to gauge the fact that whenever someone goes over to a certain pile of boxes they disappear. Hell, I had instances of guards taking cover right next to me, allowing for an easy take down, even though they had seen me there shooting their fellow guards. Mankind Divided also implements a mood system of sorts, telling you what the general mood is in the particular area. Gunfights, corpse discovery and getting discovered hacking will all send people panicking. They will stay that why until a timer runs out, then they will all go back to what they were doing without a second thought. Guards just sort of forget that a human switchblade was last seen crawling in the vents (like a mechanical Xenomorph), just because a timer ran out.
This is the first Deus Ex game to have microtransactions. The main game (what matters) is fortunately unaffected. However the separate Breach mode is . In concept, I like this mode. You play as a Ripper (a hacker but cooler as they use virtual reality). Who runs along the networks to expose the corruption behind the big corporations. Complete with decently well written stories with actual endings. Breach mode might have been a fun side adventure the player could go on, if they enjoyed the Deus Ex gameplay loop. Hell, I was having a lot of fun until the grind and pressure started building. The credits (at first plentiful) started running out faster then cake around my dog. The grind was making the Deus Ex gameplay loop unpleasant to play.
Art style and graphics:
Mankind Divided is utterly beautiful to look at, wonderfully grim with it’s cyberpunk dystopian trappings. It is also graphically impressive as well, from the lighting to the texturing. Mankind Divided is brilliant to look at and a joy for the eyes.
Please keep in mind that Mankind Divided is a rather intensive game in terms of performance. I have a fairly decent PC but even on the lowest settings I still had frame rate issues (ranging from 60 to 30 FPS). Needless to say I urge you to check out the specs article for Deus Ex from VG24/7 . Please make sure that your pc meets the recommended specs before you buy this game, otherwise you could end up with unstable performance.
I can respect what Mankind Divided for what it sets out to do. After all, if games are to grow and mature as an artistic medium. Then they need to tackle tricky or even controversial subject matter. When we fail we should learn from the mistakes of the past and look to tackle the subject matter in a more profound way. Mankind Dividend’s biggest flaw is that it is just too fine and digestible. The ingredients were there but the tea was just too weak and lacking in punch to be remember. I suppose it is still brought up when discussing topical themes and execution. But, people still think more of the original Deus Ex then any of the recent entries.
2020/07/21-Edit: New cover image.