I first started enjoying Deus Ex: Mankind Divided when I realized that Adam Jensen was a fucking loser. I know that sounds mean, so let me explain: I happen to prefer an underdog protagonist, and at first glance Adam Jensen seemed like the polar opposite. His gelled faux-hawk, ornamental chinstrap, and wrap-around sunglasses make him look like a terrible caricature of a rich Italian villain in a ski movie from the 90’s. He doesn’t just resemble a dick. He resembles a wealthy, tasteless, smirking dick of the worst kind. My judgment of the man’s appearance runs so deep, in fact, that I was able to overlook the fact that Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was a brand new cyberpunk RPG for PS4 released at a time when I was in terrible need of something to play on my console. As No Man’s Sky steadily lost its flavor, a profound emptiness had installed itself in my soul’s operating system, and I just wasn’t convinced by the potential healing power of the latest Deus Ex. Weeks later, and after much internal debate, I purchased a physical copy from my local Mexican game store, figuring I could always sell it if I grew tired of Agent Gobbleglock and his Mountain Spa Adventures.
“I had spent about 50 dollars on the game and was desperate for something to play on my couch”
My history with the Deus Ex franchise is an admittedly muddled affair: I picked up the first two games for pennies but was unable to get over the outdated graphics and clunky mechanics. As an RPG lover, I’m aware that they broke new ground in the areas of choice/consequence and narrative quality, but I just wasn’t able to see past their age. I also tried Human Revolution but bounced off it in the first fifteen minutes, discouraged by a boring introduction full of shooting in what seemed like a linear, sterile environment. In retrospect, I think I might have enjoyed the game if I had made it past this first part, because the same criticism could easily be applied to the opening moments of Mankind Divided. Difference is, this time I had spent about 50 dollars on the game and was desperate for something to play on my couch. So I powered through a lengthy tutorial and a drab, yellow-tinted level set in a crumbling Dubai. And boy am I glad that I did!
Back to Adam being a loser. If you think he isn’t, ponder this: not a single character in Deus Ex’s main cast seems to have a true bond with the man. He is constantly stumbling upon notes and emails listing the different ways in which others dislike him. He works for people he hates (and who hate him), goes home to an empty apartment, has no love interests, and is constantly getting manipulated, backstabbed, and set up by those around him. The man has no control over his body (which is a repository for random war tech) and dresses like that kid in high-school everybody is worried about because he seems to think he’s both a martial arts master and a spec ops soldier, doesn’t have any friends, and is always putting on a gruff voice. Seriously, his voice borders on parody.
“In the age of endless Avengers films, maximalism just feels tiresome“
“In the age of endless Avengers films, maximalism just feels tiresome“
Yep, Adam Jensen is the ultimate tool and that’s why I love him. Because in the fucked up world of 2029 Prague, all he can really do is win small victories along the way by helping a person or two and getting a few kind words in return. It’s what worked for The Witcher 3, and it’s what works for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. If you’re making an RPG, please don’t forget the small, pedestrian moments of heroism (or villainy). They’re the ones that really matter. There’s a reason why most people liked the side quests better than the epic save-the-world narrative at the center of The Witcher 3. It’s because in the age of endless Avengers films, maximalism just feels tiresome. Take The Dark Knight Rises, for example. It was a Batman movie with nukes, a phone call to the president, an exploding football field, and the threat of a crashing stock market. Batman drove a fucking tank around Gotham city in broad daylight, fighting an army of insurgents. Yawn.
I don’t want to sound like another cliché video game reviewer, but it’s true: the core mechanics in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided feel great. Once I got the hang of the somewhat unintuitive controls, I genuinely enjoyed creeping around, hacking into people’s personal computers, burglarizing their homes, and taking out armed goons (the cops and the robbers). The act of upgrading my ‘augments’ (or ‘augs’ — technology integrated into my cyborg body) allowed me to lean into my play style, and the game is a darn good stealthy shooter in its own right. I enjoyed accumulating money, XP, weapons, and scouring each area of the magnificently rendered Prague to reveal its hidden treasures. All in all, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided kept me challenged without generating enough frustration push me away. Speaking as someone who tends to skip through dialogue and avoid reading ‘lore’, I also found that the game did a great job at keeping me curious. By (mostly) avoiding binary moralizing, Mankind Divided creates true mystery around the game’s major players: their roles and intentions are often shrouded in subterfuge. This makes the world feel realistically complex in its depiction of human nature, conflict, and politics — all because Adam is constantly faced with the reality that he doesn’t know much and can’t control circumstances.
One of the major triumphs of the game is its offering of non-lethal options. More than just a loophole for the squeamish, it genuinely made me think about whether or not I was willing to kill particular NPC’s. What is the fundamental difference between a bank guard, a member of the Czech police, an Augmented Rights Coalition (ARC) fighter, a Russian mobster, and a team of corporate assassins — all of which try to murder Adam at different points in the game? I was forced to ask myself this and come to my own conclusions on the matter. I even found myself re-loading one of the missions repeatedly because I refused to kill any member of ARC, having too little knowledge of each individual’s crimes. This made me reflect on my own politics surrounding issues of violence and ‘insurgency’. The same was true of bank employees. I spared each and every one of them, deciding that working for a villainous corporation wasn’t enough to warrant death. What’s so remarkable is how strongly rooted I found my convictions to be within this fictional universe: even small compromises were agony. As such, in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, shooting felt decidedly political. Whether this was a result of believable world-building, strong mechanics, or my state of mind as I held the controller… I cannot be certain. Suffice it to say that I suspended my disbelief, and it felt awesome to let the cyberpunk-dystopian-horror wash over me in waves of moral incertitude.
Of course there are flaws in every game, and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is no exception. It undoubtedly suffers from narrative over-focus, a syndrome that is very common in video games: the writers feeling obliged to tie every single piece of lore into the central issue of the game. In this case, augmented human beings and the catastrophic hijacking of their systems by a villainous motherfucker who made them do bad things to humans, and now humans hate them and stuff. Yes, the game is full of sayings like “aug lives matter” and the promotional material leading up to its release kept using the words “mechanical apartheid.” These wouldn’t be as big of an issue, in my opinion, if this kind of heavy-handed writing wasn’t so relentless. I’m not saying I wanted the game to be full of unrelated personal stories, but I would have enjoyed it if a larger percent of the background story-telling dealt with the world as a whole. In the end — and as with the quests — it was the small details that ended up fascinating me. Things like finding a book that explained how giant corporations became members of the United Nations. Major cultural and historic shifts that weren’t necessarily directly related to the Aug Incident. Surely there’s more where that came from?
“By forcing me to take on a role that was dissonant with the opinions I’d formed along the way, the game showed its limits”
This aside, I’d say Mankind Divided’s most poignant failure was — after crafting a trail of fascinating lore that granted me insight into the Augmented Rights Coalition and their possible radicalization — giving me what felt like a limited range of responses in my discussion with its leader, Talos Rucker. By forcing me to take on a role that was dissonant with the opinions I’d formed along the way, the game showed its limits and reminded me that I was just a guy playing a scripted entertainment product. In that moment I wanted to relate to Rucker and his faction in a certain way, but I was not allowed to, and I found this surprisingly disheartening. It reinforced my belief that player choice (or its illusion at the very least) is paramount to the success of a role-playing game. One of my biggest pleasures in Mankind Divided was trying to help Adam Jensen figure out what role he should play within the larger machinations of his doomed world. Because of this, being forced to take a particular moral stance just felt wrong and uninteresting.
I have not yet finished Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. I do plan on doing so, but I hear the ending is a bit of a ‘to be continued…’ situation. That’s fine. So is life. And despite my opposition to Square Enix’s love for DLC’s and micro-transactions I will probably purchase the rest of the story, mostly because I’m feeling really curious. And that’s a great thing.