Coming fresh off the back of the excellent Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I just finished Mankind Divided and it is exactly what I hoped it would be: better in every way.
Let me say again that I have always hated stealth games. I cannot stand the idea of staying invisible to patrolling enemies. Even worse is being detected, being chased, and then finding somewhere to hide while guards slowly search for me. This is literally the stuff of nightmares for me, and rather than try and sneak through a building undetected, my preference has always been to kill everyone in open combat so that there’s no one left to detect me.
In spite of my loathing for this kind of genre, it didn’t taken me long to once again feel like a walking badass. A few hours into the game, I was given a dozen praxis points to use as I saw fit, I immediately maxed out my hacking skills, acquired some new lungs, accessed my super jump, and overcharged my arms. In one incredibly satisfying fell swoop, the whole of the city suddenly opened before me. While it’s true that Prague 2029 didn’t have as much personality as Detroit or Hengsha, it was thrilling that almost from the start I could unlock every pathway and find every secret.
And what a treasure trove of secrets there were! I’m not talking about weapon caches or hidden safes (though don’t get me wrong, I plundered the hell out of those too). I’m talking people’s secrets. The lives behind closed doors. I felt like an omniscient phantom, letting myself into people’s homes and uncovering every hidden facet of their lives.
It was heartbreaking to learn of the artist who, because she was augmented, wasn’t being recognised for her talent and who was trying to gather enough money to smuggle her and her partner out of Prague. I discovered a drug dealer’s apartment whose wild parties apparently eventuated in the creation of a double-decker couch. I felt a touch of sadness at the college student whose parents had been suddenly detained for donating to a pro-aug charity, and who had to drop out of school to care for his ten-year-old sister in exchange for access to his inheritance. Everything about the condo screamed that he wasn’t ready for guardianship, and that he wished that she could be adopted by the foster family who wanted to be her parents.
Perhaps most interesting was the apartment of a gentleman who seemed to go out of his way to project the image that all he did in his spare time was go rock climbing and cycling. Despite the luxury and militaristic neatness, it was clear that the apartment had barely been lived in. Digging a little deeper, the home was the epitome of loneliness: only one of the six fancy chairs at the dining table was being used, and it was to drink a bottle of wine while reading custody claims and divorce papers from his ex-husband (same-sex representation, what a surprise to find it in a game like this!). Further snooping indicated that he was an Australian war veteran who was still part of a tight-knit squad of friends that were helping one of their group get through PTSD after “the Incident”. Additionally, in a hidden room (activated by punching bag!) he still kept his sniper rifle, and was apparently not entirely retired… All this without ever speaking to the character. Honestly, the environmental design team deserve to win piles of award and recognition for their genius and hard work.
Subtle photos on the wall painted a vivid picture of happier times.
Combing over every inch of the game allowed me to learn a great deal about major characters. For instance, in one mission I was to abduct a particular individual for questioning. Through watching his broadcasts, reading emails and finding pocket secretaries, I learned that he was struggling with alcoholism and the burden of maintaining a public image. When I finally confronted him, this allowed me a greater degree of compassion as I decided how to handle the situation.
My thoroughness did have its drawbacks though. The game dropped a handful of hints about some major plot developments, and because I found them all, I saw the “twists” coming a mile away. At one point I found myself screaming “DON’T DRINK THE CHAMPAIGN” while Jensen was chatting cluelessly to the people who could have stopped a mass-poisoning.
One thing that must be mentioned is how well the developers explored the issues of discrimination, oppression and genocide. I can’t claim to be an expert on these subjects, but I’ve been thinking more about privilege lately and I really appreciate the complex and nuanced view that the devs took when writing about a futuristic mechanical apartheid. The game looked at both overt discrimination, like having a designated train carriage for augmented citizens, and subvert discrimination like a casual line in an email that essentially said “Are you interested in dating? Don’t worry, I’m not augmented”.
Tensions were high between augmented and “natural” citizens.
From the trailer, I was worried the game would force me into a binary: aug or natural, us vs them. Fortunately, the game did a remarkable job of making me feel like all choices were equally viable, and that many different beliefs were tenable for their own reasons. I deeply appreciated Rucker’s courageous and non-violent message in the face of terror and abuse, and for the most part I avoided conflict, believing the long-term solution lay in changing the system rather than killing any particular individuals. For the most part, the occupants of Prague were just doing their jobs, and I went to great lengths to avoid killing any of them as I did whatever needed to be done.
Having said that, there were precisely three occasions where I felt the need to use lethal methods. After spending so many hours carefully sneaking around, incapacitating foes non-lethally, it was a strange and euphoric experience to know that the guy I put down wouldn’t get up again and shoot me in the back if his buddy woke him up. It became easier and easier to kill after I did it the first time, and I found myself tempted to assassinate anyone who I saw as an obstacle, or as a “bad person”. It was terrifying to notice I had become the totalitarian regime I was trying to undermine, judge, jury and executioner all in one. I appreciate how seriously the game took murder, and how there were so many opportunities to avoid it if I was patient, bold and clever.
As with most RPG’s, I got a little carried away with the roleplaying, too. Whenever I felt like I might be heading into a dangerous mission requiring extra firepower, I would go back to my apartment to alter my inventory. The first thing I would do was to log onto my computer and reset the locks to keep out unwanted visitors. When I felt secure in my isolation, I would slide back the wall panel to reveal my weapon lockers. I would consider carefully what kind of gear I would need, and would neatly lay out all of my weapons and ammunition so that they were easily accessible. To avoid unlocking the door on my way out, I would leave through a window and then have to hack my way back in later. Obviously this had no impact on any of the characters in-game, but I didn’t do it for them, did I?
This was one of my favourite parts of the game, and I make no apologies for that.
Overall, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a superb game! Despite my initial distaste of the genre, I found that when I became sufficiently skilled at the stealth mechanic I no longer feared discovery but instead revelled in being a deadly spectre. With streamlined abilities, a fresh set of augments, new items, mechanics and characters, Mankind Divided was in improvement on the previous game in every way. I hope they end up making the third game of the trilogy, because you better believe I’d play the hell out of that.