UPDATE, August 23 2016: Our original impressions from last Friday can still be found below, but since the game released today and I completed it over the weekend, we thought it time to revisit and tack on a score. You'll find updated impressions sprinkled throughout.
ORIGINAL STORY BELOW:
Let’s be clear: This is not our final verdict on Deus Ex: Mankind Divided ($60 preorder on Amazon or Steam). (Update: Now it is!) I’m hoping to have a full review in time for the game's release next Tuesday, but there are a few reasons why we’re only doling out basic impressions today.
First and foremost: I’m not done with the game. We only received PC code on Tuesday, and while I’ve put 20+ hours into the game since then I estimate I’m only about halfway through the main story. Blame my habit of stopping to hack every single computer I see.
More worrisome is the fact that we’ve experienced some fairly major—though not show-stopping—technical problems with the game as it stands.
Update: The pre-launch performance issues were smoothed out (for the most part) by a patch on Saturday and new Nvidia drivers over the weekend. Both Brad and I have noticed the game running substantially better, with Brad hitting 60-plus frames per second at 1440p on his EVGA GTX 1080 FTW, and I hitting a steady 60fps at 1080p on my GTX 980 Ti. Furthermore, the crashes that frequently happened on start-up seem to have subsided. (Character lip-syncing is still not great, though.)
If you’re still having performance issues, make sure you’ve turned off MSAA. As I discovered a few hours into the game, my MSAA settings were at 4X. That’s a performance power-suck, and sure enough, I gained back 15 to 20 frames per second for each level I turned it down (to 2X and then off, for a cumulative gain of 30-40 frames per second). The problem? It’s easy to miss the MSAA setting because it’s, for whatever reason, hidden with the resolution and FOV options instead of with the other graphics (and other antialiasing) settings.
Okay, so let’s talk about the game, shall we? A summary, for those who don’t want even the merest whiff of spoilers: It’s a lot like Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Like, if you showed me game footage from Mankind Divided next to footage of Human Revolution, I’d have a hard time discerning the two.
That’s not a bad thing, by any means. In fact, it’s a bit of a relief after the trainwreck of marketing that preceded Mankind Divided—the bombastic and action-packed reveal trailer, the use of terms like “mechanical apartheid” and “Augs lives matter.” I think there was cause for concern.
And while Mankind Divided certainly delves into themes of racism, of organized state-driven segregation, it does so in ways that are (barring a few ham-fisted moments) more subtle than its marketing indicated. It’s been two years since the “Aug Incident” at the end of Human Revolution, the moment where augmented individuals temporarily lost control of their abilities and rampaged through major cities. Mankind Divided picks at the fallout from that event, the fear and anger from those who lack augments and the pain and regret from those who do.
Returning protagonist Adam Jensen is at the heart of this struggle. As a key participant in the events of Human Revolution and an ex-police officer, Jensen holds enough sway to stay relevant—indeed, he’s now working as part of Interpol. He’s also heavily augmented, which makes strangers (and quite a few of his friends, if we’re honest) deadly afraid of him.
Tensions are further-strained by a series of terrorist attacks around the world—attacks ascribed to the Augmented Rights Coalition, or ARC. But maybe it’s a conspiracy? But maybe it’s not? The usual Deus Ex onion unfurls here.
Moving away from spoiler territory, it’s an interesting tonal shift from the eternal optimism of Human Revolution. The previous game’s classist struggles could be summed up by “Progress At Any Cost.” Now, a conservative bent has taken hold of the world and artificial evolution’s started to look like a huge mistake. Playing at gods.
And a conservative bent has taken hold of Deus Ex too. Your goal as Jensen is to navigate this new world, tug on loose ends in ways immediately familiar to anyone who played Human Revolution. The hub cities are a bit bigger—and it’s centered around Prague, not Detroit—but other than that not much has changed.
I confess I’ve spent most of my time in Deus Ex doing nothing important, or at least not important to the main story. Occasionally I’ve had characters call and bug me to remember my commitments, to come meet them in some back alley or what have you.
Why? Because I’ve been too busy exploring. Explore, explore, explore. That’s what I loved about Human Revolution and it’s made a return here. Like all Deus Ex games, Mankind Divided is essentially a first-person RPG. That means a lot of breaking into people’s homes, hacking their computers, reading their probably-boring-and-inconsequential-but-what-if-it’s-important emails, stealing all their stuff. There’s something weirdly satisfying about Adam Jensen, the illicit house cleaner.
And so I’ve uncovered every corner of Prague. I’ve hacked a lot of computers. I’ve read a lot of emails. I’ve stolen a lot of barely-concealed pistols from people’s homes. Only maybe nine or ten hours in did I start working on the second main mission.
I’ve also been playing full-stealth and pacifist, which is always a bit of a challenge. Over twenty hours in and I still haven’t killed anyone. Hopefully I can take that streak to the end. And yes, they did dispense with Human Revolution’s awful boss fights. I haven’t been forced to fight anyone, though I’ve knocked out my fair share of guards.
It’s a good sequel, I think. Certainly a good sequel to Human Revolution, though perhaps not as forward-thinking as I might’ve hoped. With the new console hardware, with five years separating it from the previous game, there are some disappointments here. Hub zones feel kind of lifeless and scripted, with repetitive civilian barks and Oblivion-style wandering NPCs. Guard AI is maybe a mite too stupid (at least on normal difficulty). Level design has started to feel predictable, with me often saying “Okay if the main entrance is guarded then there must be a vent around here somewhere,” and nine out of ten times I’ve been correct.
Maybe it plays it a bit too safe, in other words. I enjoyed Human Revolution, and I’m fine with Mankind Divided being “That game, but more.” Still, there’s a certain reverence given to Deus Ex—for allowing players so many paths to their objective, for innovating upon the stealth genre, for some truly stellar branching level design. Remember when players found out that if you killed someone in Human Revolution, went through most of the level, and then went back to the beginning you’d find police cleaning up the scene? That seemed kind of amazing in 2011, right?
Set aside the graphics (inconsequential) and the size of the levels (inconsequential provided you don’t mind loading screens) and Mankind Divided feels like it could’ve released alongside Human Revolution in 2011. Again, that's not necessarily a bad thing. I’d happily take this over something that betrays its own legacy, like the Thief reboot.
But stealth games have evolved a bit since Human Revolution, and Mankind Divided doesn’t seem to acknowledge the shifts brought about by something like Dishonored or Metal Gear Solid V or, hell, even the new Hitman (another Square-published game). This is, for better and worse, straight-up Deus Ex.
Despite all that, I’m enjoying it. Usually these sorts of nail-my-hands-to-the-mouse-and-WASD review periods are a slog, sitting at a desk ten or more hours a day trying frantically to beat an embargo. But Deus Ex? I’m having a hell of a good time, and I keep looking up only to realize another hour’s gone by while I futzed around with a murder investigation or hacked my fellow officemate’s computers.
[CAUTION: VERY VAGUE SPOILERS AHEAD]
UPDATE: As far as the game itself: It’s great—when it exists. Unfortunately Deus Ex: Mankind Divided falls apart at the end, and I don’t mean this in a “The ending is bad,” sort of way. It literally doesn’t have an ending, in the traditional sense. If we assume games follow the standard three-act structure, then Mankind Divided is a game that cuts off midway through the second act, wrapping up one tertiary plotline and leaving the rest dangling. From the pacing, I thought I had about six hours left to play when it cut to credits.
I don’t know whether we’ll see more of the story in the upcoming DLC. I don’t know if we’ll have to wait years for Eidos to make another sequel. It doesn’t really matter, because both those options are bad. It’s a gutpunch of a cliffhanger that’s really soured me on what’s otherwise an excellent Deus Ex game, or—as I said last Friday—at least an excellent sequel to Human Revolution.
Would I still recommend it? Sure. It’s great fun traipsing through vents and walloping guys in the neck while it lasts, and I managed to secure that ever-important Pacifist achievement. But woe to whatever circumstances gave us a game without a real climax.