Deus Ex: Mankind Divided hands-on: Choose your own cyber-augmented adventure

Deus Ex's famed open gameplay returns in Mankind Divided.

Of all the games I’ve played at E3 2016, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided might be the hardest to write about. Like the legendary 1999 original and the 2011 follow-up Human Revolution (we don’t talk about the other sequel), Mankind Divided seems like a game that demands an investment. A hefty one.

It’s not, in other words, a game you play for thirty minutes at a time. It’s not a game where you can watch a cutscene in isolation and have a solid grasp of the plot. It’s not a game where you take the quickest route straight to the mission objective and then call it a day.

Instead, it’s like a puzzle box. Deus Ex is about the unfolding, about peeling back layers of plot and seeing what’s underneath, or the slow progression of game-changing gadgets. It’s about exploring every path, finding each unnecessary filler document, hacking every computer.

I mean, it doesn’t have to be that. The other conceit of Deus Ex is that it’s both a stealth game and shooter, an RPG and an action game. It’s a sandbox—not an open-world one, but much less linear than your average Call of Duty level. You’re encouraged to experiment, to make mistakes, to play through a second time and discover tactics you didn’t even know were in the game your first run.

Trying to fit that into a single thirty minute demo? Good luck.

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To its credit, Square’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided E3 demo is pretty decent. Human Revolution protagonist Adam Jensen is back, a few years older and a few wrinkles grimmer. Jensen’s tasked with infiltrating a Dubai hotel and safely exfiltrating a wanted criminal, which is hard enough as-is.

But it’s even harder in the middle of a sandstorm.

I decided to go the nonlethal route, taking a long-range tranquilizer gun (my weapon of choice in Human Revolution too) into the compound. Then it was time to climb the tower. And hopefully not get spotted.

Okay, I got spotted. But only once! And when I did, I died. That tranquilizer rifle is useless in a fight.

But it’s amazing how open and spacious Mankind Divided’s levels feel. On my way through the hotel I was able to spot a number of alternate paths I could’ve sent Jensen down. Some are easy to locate—a vent high up on a wall, or a stray bit of scaffolding. Others are easier spotted with Jensen’s augmentations, like weak points in the wall that he can punch his big ol’ metal fist through. Not the stealthiest method but it works.

So I stealthed my way through most of the level, ignoring side corridors in order to hit the half-hour mark while falling back on my Human Revolution patterns. The mission area is huge and packed with patrollers, which made for a challenge. Still, it was enjoyable enough.

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The problem is I have very little idea of how the game plays, still. Missions were already one of Human Revolution’s weak points. Deus Ex is more a series about the choices you make—when talking to people, or in missions, or building out Jensen. By focusing on a mission here, the Mankind Divided demo does a good job showing off the active systems in the game (i.e. combat, stealth) but does little in the way of highlighting the writing or the branching story. How could you, in a short little demo like this?

Breached

The problem is I don’t think Deus Ex is that great on a systems level. Competent, maybe, but this isn’t a game I’m playing for the stealth or the shooting. Those are just obstacles in the way of my next story beat.

This came to a head when I tried out the game’s “Breach Mode”—an asynchronous multiplayer mode divorced from Jensen’s story. It boils down to challenge rooms, which you’re supposed to sprint through as fast as possible in order to put up the best times.

I’m sure there’s a group of people—maybe some who haven’t ever played Deus Ex before, even—who will find this mode enticing. But me? I just don’t quite get it. To me, Deus Ex is a game built around story. Take that away and you’re left with some subpar stealth mechanics, mediocre guard AI, and a bunch of seemingly-identical rooms to “rob.”

What’s the fun in that?

Bottom line

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And so I’m reserving judgment. I had an exciting time playing the demo mission—it felt good to take over Jensen again, to see him suited up and crouch-walking and knocking guards out with a single punch.

I simply don’t know yet whether Deus Ex can deliver on its story. It’s certainly ambitious, this whole “mechanical apartheid” storyline they’ve got going. Now I just need to have it in my hands so I can peel back all those layers.

But I’m calling it right now: The Illuminati did it.

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