If you were to look at my Netflix history, you could easily tell–I’m one of those people who loves really good documentaries and conspiracy theories. We love conspiracy theories because they provide us a great story. A ‘what if’ scenario that we can spend hours imagining the ramifications of what the world would be like if that conspiracy was true. With Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Square-Enix’s sets out to tell us a story of human rights and conspiracy theories, but never delivers on its promise.
The Game’s Greatest Assest – Play How You Like
Mankind Divided is a puzzle game. I know its defined genre is RPG, but like the recently released Hitman, the way in which the game presents challenges feels more like a puzzle game than a traditional story-based RPG. Levels are designed in a manner that leave its objective open to interpretation. Do you enter the building guns blazing, killing anyone in your way? Or do you sneak in the air duct around the backside of the building? A character needs you to complete a favor for his continued assistance. Do you follow through with his request or find an alternative method to finish the job? This is Mankind Divided’s greatest asset, its ability to adapt to various play styles.
I’ve always been a stealth player, and somewhat of a pacifist. Not because I just hate violence, but because resisting the urge to take the easy route usually creates a more enjoyable and challenging experience. The Adam Jensen of my particular universe specialized in stealth and hacking. Killing was never an option, instead my only means of attack was a stun gun or a tranquilizer gun. Close quarters combat always ended with an enemy unconscious on the floor. Because I focused on stealth, I had to plan each mission strategically. Instead of running through the front door, I spent my time looking for structural weakness–vents to crawl through or computers to hack. Every mission was another puzzle to solve, and solving that puzzle without killing anyone or being seen became its own satisfying reward. I was surprised to find that even bosses could be defeated without lethal action. You could even talk your way out of certain situations. This open design was the game’s greatest strength but it had one weakness.
What Happens When You Decide to Swtich It Up?
Mankind Divided is a victim of a particular vice. It starts the game with a fully powered Adam Jensen and then strips you of those powers after the introductory mission. You actually start the game at zero, building your skill tree from the ground up. For some games, this isn’t a problem but for this game it is. In order to understand how this is a bad thing, we have to look at another game; Hitman. Hitman like Mankind Divided, is designed around player freedom. As Agent 47, you are given free reign to complete assassinations any way you see fit. Where the two games differ is that Agent 47 has all of his skills at the beginning. You do not need to upgrade his skillset, it’s already there. It makes for a much more enjoyable experience and adds another layer to the game play. Instead of being pigeonholed to one play style, you can mix and match.
Adam Jensen doesn’t have this luxury, which seems at odd with the game that’s presented. If the game is open for me to complete how I want, but I don’t have access to what is needed to do so, a problem arises. Take my stealth based Jensen. There were moments when I wanted to sneak past a group of enemies through a HVAC duct, but couldn’t because there was electricity surging through the duct. And because I didn’t have the proper abilities I couldn’t walk through without taking damage. I’m sure you’re thinking, “well why not just get the upgrade you need?” The answer is that particular upgrade was buried behind a set of combat skills that I didn’t need since I was playing a stealth build. But let’s say I decided that being a pacifist wasn’t cutting it anymore? What if I wanted to spice things up…go rogue and start killing people? It wouldn’t last long, because my player wasn’t built for killing and there was no way to unlock everything unless I paid money for more upgrade points. That’s right, micro-transactions found their way into this game. The only way to unlock everything is to pay for it. I played all the side missions I could and that unlocked most of what I needed but I wanted a fully unlocked character. But I wasn’t about to pay for it.
An Interesting Story Hidden Behind a Boring Hub World
Remember how I said that I love a good conspiracy theory? Well the story of Mankind Divided is predicated on the idea that the Illuminati exists and has plans to establish a new world order. It is a continuation of the story told in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and is a story I’m actually interested in. But the game can never get out of its own way to tell me that story. Mankind Divided sits somewhere between open world and linear gameplay. Side mission and exploration happen within a hub world, while the main story missions take place outside of the hub. This design choice wrecks havoc on the cohesion the story needs.
The hub world feels dead and many of the side missions have no bearing on the overall story, which might not be a problem with a game like GTA, but when a game feels like it’s trying to tell you something important a murder mystery is the last thing you’re trying to solve. Not to mention traveling between areas in the hub is a chore. Long load times and no ability to quick travel means you spend minutes going from one place to another. Minutes that over time add up, eventually pushing you to the point of ignoring the story just so you can get to the destination as quickly as possible. It wasn’t unusual to finish a main story mission, get back to base ready to continue the story, only to be told, “hey Jensen go to this part of the city to check on a clue.” Although it’s not an option in the game, there were times when I just wanted Jensen to say “you know what? Fuck this, I’m not going. Just tell me what the clue means and let’s get on with it.”
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a game trapped in an ever evolving industry. Single player games with a linear campaign are becoming more of a rarity, with the focus shifting to multiple games with longer shelf life. Open world is the default as it adds more time to the game. More time means less chance the game is sold on the secondary market. Mankind Divided is a single player game with a linear campaign. We all know it, yet the game is designed to match the flavor of the month. The game didn’t need a hub world to be great. It didn’t need random side missions and sure as hell didn’t need microtransactions. It had the story, level design and mechanics to drive home the point that single player games still matter. I just wish Square-Enix realized that it still matters, especially to people like me.