Dealing with politics and social issues in video games is a risky affair. It’s something usually reserved for indie titles, which I’ve always found to be a shame. Videogames are unlike any other medium out there, offering the perfect combination of sight, sound, and interactivity. The potential for large-scale, thought-provoking “idea” games is huge, but sadly, big-budget games are usually concerned with playing it safe for mass appeal. Once in a blue moon, you’ll get a Spec Ops: The Line, but they’re few and far in between.
If people want to play the “games are art” card, there should be a demand for more challenging narratives.
This is a roundabout way of saying that Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is very much what I want out of gaming narratives. Eidos Montreal’s sequel to their surprise 2011 hit is a step up in virtually every department, perhaps none more so than the plot and lore. Because while players still get several hours of open-ended combat and exploration, they also get more to chew on outside of gameplay.
Adam Jensen has returned after being out for two years, one of which he can’t even remember. The world is a very different place than the augmentation-happy one he explored during Human Revolution. After a large-scale tragedy, people with augmentations are now treated as second-class citizens. They have to use different parts of public transportation and are frequently frisked and brutalized by the police. There’s a decrepit city of housing projects they’re shipped to, and there are large protests calling for an end to the segregation.
Does this sound familiar? It should, because it’s a thinly veiled metaphor for racism, with dashes of xenophobia and ableism thrown in. Real world injustices are translated to augmented humans, whether it’s police turning a blind eye to their murders, or a normalization of caustic language towards them. Prague, where a brunt of the game takes place, is an extreme yet eerily similar stand-in for our current social climate. Replace the word “aug” with “person of colour” or “refugee,” and you’ll see what the writers were going for.
Thing is, they didn’t just go for it—they hit it out of the freaking park. To date, this is the most accurate and realistic depiction of oppression and othering in a video game. The best science fiction uses bait-and-switch tactics to get at a deeper meaning, and that’s exactly what Mankind Divided does. Players who might not think about these issues on a regular basis are forced to confront them through a different lens. Sure, some of it may be a bit on the nose, but this is a AAA game we’re talking about. Some simplification is practically required.
However, a little bit of heavy-handed storytelling doesn’t detract from how gutsy Eidos Montreal was for putting something like this out. Choosing to focus on a powder keg topic like racism, then exploring practically every nuance through an invented perspective is brilliant. It’s especially brilliant in the medium of big-budget gaming, where “should I kill this person or not” still passes as deep and profound storytelling.
Even decisions of that variety are presented in nuanced ways in Mankind Divided. There are numerous points during the game where players are forced to make complicated decisions, and the thing is, there’s usually not a right answer. Get more intel on a virus, or save a woman from her own cult? Stop a human trafficking ring, or let it thrive and allow people use it to escape further oppression? No choice in this game leaves you feeling particularly great, and to me, that’s amazing. Adam Jensen’s role in this new paradigm is one of having to walk the line between human and “aug,” and as such, any decision he’s forced to make reflects that morally gray nature.
There’s no right answer in the world of Mankind Divided, much like real life.
On a related note, the gameplay reflects that ambiguity. Human Revolution was a hit thanks to its open-ended approach to exploration and conflict, and Mankind Divided doubles down on that design choice. Even more than before, you can go about this game however you want, even in ways you wouldn’t think you could. You can infiltrate a gang hideout by climbing through windows and sneaking past guards. You can get a CEO’s dirty secrets by barging into their building and shooting everyone. You can delete entire potential plot threads by killing off major characters when they least expect it.
Many games love to brag about letting players play them however they want, but those choices usually boil down to “shoot a thing” or “stab a thing.” Mankind Divided is so much more dynamic than that. Whether you’re in Prague, the Alps, or London, Adam can do practically anything you want him to do and then some. It’s a refinement of everything I loved about the last title, with a whole spate of mechanical and control improvements to go along with it. Oh, and no garbage can boss encounters this time. There are occasional one-on-one fights (like one with a serial killer in a sewer,) but they feel much more balanced and well though-out this go-round.
Aside from the wide variety of combat options, from pure melee to assault to non-lethal, augmentations are also back and better than ever. The expected ones make an appearance, of course, like your Icarus Landing System or your wall punch. But this time, there are hidden augs. See, while in a coma, Jensen had more augmentations installed without his permission. These run the risk of overheating him, but come with awesome perks. For example, have you ever wanted to practically use the Force on a hapless guard, or hack something from several feet away? Now you can. Pretty much all of these new augs are stellar and add a surprising amount of variety to the combat. Plus, the narrative reason for them being there is pretty cool in and of itself.
Perhaps the only negative thing I can think to say about Mankind Divided is regarding the visuals. Honestly, I don’t think they’re that bad, and if Fallout 4 can release with less-than-amazing graphics without getting flak, this should too. Still, there’s no denying that some of the character models are janky, some of the textures are really low-res, and some of the framerate drops are noticeable. Yet, none of this ultimately broke my immersion all that much. Deus Ex’s signature aesthetic and art direction distracted me from whatever graphical horsepower was lacking, and continued to pull me in from location to location.
Every location, too, was one I was enthralled with. Everywhere I went, I dragged along Adam Jensen and his baggage. Even when there’s a new target, a new goal, his moral conflict never subsides. Deep down, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided isn’t a game about busting terrorists or taking on the Illuminati. It’s about Jensen coming to realize that, to paraphrase Desmond Tutu, being neutral in a situation of injustice is siding with the oppressor. Through his twisted, conflicted perspective, players slowly understand that the worst action is often inaction. They’re forced to make decisions and suffer the consequences for all of them, imperfectly navigating an imperfect world.
From the smallest side quests to the most major story beats, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a true tour de force, a masterpiece of both game design and storytelling. It’s an increasing rarity for a game to be both fun to play and narratively complex, especially one from a major publisher, and yet here we are. By leaps and bounds, this is the finest title I’ve played in 2016 so far, and perhaps one of the finest I’ve ever played.