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June 8, 2016

Deus Ex Mankind Divided preview: Cyberpunk satisfaction

by John_A

Games franchises with a reputation for being intelligent and thought-provoking are pretty rare at the best of times. And with the current trend towards online-only games which don’t even pay lip-service to storylines, they’re becoming even more so.

For that reason, it’s intriguing to welcome back Square-Enix’s much-loved stealth-action epic Deus Ex, in its latest Mankind Divided instalment. At a recent Square Enix pre-E3 gaming expo showcase, we managed to get a decent amount of play time with the game, which has certainly whetted our appetite for its forthcoming release on August 23.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided preview: Dystopian future

As a franchise, Deus Ex has always explored the consequences of a particular overarching storyline which, to an extent, has moved from the realms of fiction to fact during the 16-years since the first game. It posits a near future in which mankind has mastered the art of cybernetic body-augmentation, and plots the consequences of that. Mankind Divided picks up the story in 2029, two years after the events chronicled in the last instalment, 2011’s Human Revolution.

Square Enix

Those two years have not been kind to the so-called “augs” (short for augmentations). Shortly after Human Revolution, a form of computer virus infected the augs, which temporarily embarked on a global rampage, in the course of which 50-million humans were slaughtered. As a result, “mechanical apartheid” has been implemented, with the remaining augs segregated and under suspicion. Naturally, they have started to fight back.

As in Human Revolution, you play Adam Jensen, himself the recipient of early, experimental augmentations. The mission we played was the first of the game. It starts off in a hover-plane, with Jensen the only aug among a black-ops unit called Task Force 29. With the rest of the team homing-in on an abandoned, half-built hotel in Dubai, intent on nabbing the perpetrators of an arms deal which is about to go down, Jensen free-falls from the plane onto the hotel roof (performing a nifty shock-absorbed landing) to run interference from above.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided preview: Puzzles, takedowns and minigames

Before the mission got under way, we were offered the option to use the new control system or to revert to Human Revolution’s one. We chose the new one, which proved to be only lightly tweaked, with fine control over Jensen’s movement between cover-points now mapped to the left stick. It felt thoroughly intuitive and generally superior.

Working through the impressively designed level – a typically overblown Arabian folly, abandoned to decay – we encounter all the key elements of Deus Ex’s gameplay: from minor puzzle-solving in order to traverse seemingly blocked areas (Jensen has an augmentation which lets him spot structural weaknesses in walls and punch through them), to much stealthing and pulling-off takedowns. Hacking mini-games similar to those from Human Revolution are abundant too.

Square Enix

Jensen has a gas-grenade and non-lethal dart gun, which was a moderately dangerous object to employ, since any enemies who encounter bodies will raise the alarm and initiate a search protocol. Mankind Divided’s artificial intelligence is pretty rigorous, as it should be.

As ever, your path and general approach are entirely up to you – and a pre-mission choice between taking a lethal or non-lethal weapon with you offeres a reminder that in Mankind Divided, as with its predecessors, makes it possible to complete the game without killing anyone. How rare. You would have to be a bit of a ninja to pull that off, though: we rued the choice of a non-lethal weapon when a big cover-based shoot-out took place at the end of the mission. Luckily, we could pick-up a decent weapon from a dead enemy. So much for pacifism.

Jensen has an invisibility aug, which proves useful, although in common with previous Deus Ex games, the augs had to be powered, and it was easy to run out of juice for them. It’s a safe bet that Mankind Divided will feature more (and better) augs than ever before, and you’ll be able to choose and upgrade them according to your favoured play-style.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided preview: Multi-layered story

A hands-off demo at a later level shed more light on Mankind Divided’s storyline, which is clearly labyrinthine and seemingly absorbing. The action shifts to Prague, where Jensen lives – his apartment is a game-hub. His mission sounded simple enough: to visit Dr Koller, a sort of underground augmentation-specialist. But we learn that Koller is besieged in his office by a bunch of gangsters, so moving freely around Prague is far from straightforward, due to the generally paranoid atmosphere and the presence of security guards, gangsters, cameras and the like on the streets.

Square Enix

Again, multiple approaches are possible – such as employing conversational wiles to charm security cards out of people (a conversational engine features heavily in the game, and you can work on enhancing Jensen’s power of suggestion). Eventually, we stealthily entered the building via an open window, and dispatched a load of gangsters in spectacular style.

Another story thread involves the Church of the Machine God – basically an aug-revering cult who want to recruit Jensen – giving us a hint of a story-thread in which Jensen discovers his augs are actually more extensive than he has previously been led to believe. Back-story-filling logs are plentiful and it’s clear that story-wise, Mankind Divided will feel like an entire cyberpunk novel in game form.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided preview: Breach mode

We also played a new mode, which is a departure for Deus Ex. Entitled Breach mode, it isn’t quite multiplayer, in that you don’t play it against or with anyone else, but Square describes it as “live”, meaning it requires an internet connection and that you can compete to complete missions quicker than rival players, or set your friends specific challenges in it.

Its story premise hinges on the Palisade Bank in Prague, where one of the private military companies that pretty much runs the world in 2052 has stored its most secret data. Naturally, your task is to hack in – which is achieved by a VR-style interface in which you control an avatar endowed with augmented abilities much like those of Jensen. It’s basically a version of the game boiled down to its most fundamental gameplay, with ultra-stylised, almost Tron-like graphics.

Square Enix

In Breach, you seek out server-blocks, hacking pre-determined amounts of data from them before beating a hasty retreat – once the alarm sounds when you’ve reached your hacking quota – back to your initial entry point. The security systems also have avatars, on which you can perform takedowns and the like, and all manner of obstacles are placed in your path, which require some thought to circumvent.

Breach had a separate augmentation upgrade path – unsurprisingly given that in it, you control an avatar – so it will let you explore a very different character to the version of Jensen in the main game.

It’s extremely enjoyable and quite moreish, leaving you keen to embark on the next mission, and often bringing rewards in the form of new augmentations and the like. We’re not quite so convinced about whether people will bother with the competitive side of it, given the breadth of games out there already, but it certainly adds extra meat and replay value to Mankind Divided.

First Impressions

Overall, our initial play time with Mankind Divided left us gagging to play more of the game. After five years in development, it’s very polished. Its stylised graphics look great and story-wise, it feels worryingly believable.

If you like your games with a cyberpunk vibe and sufficient narrative depth to deserve the description “thought-provoking” then Deus Ex: Mankind Divided should satisfy that craving.

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