'Deus Ex' Is Back (Again), but the Formula Is Growing Stale

It's been five years since Deus Ex was brought back from the dead, but a new sequel suggests change is in order.
August 19, 2016, 7:31pm

Deus Ex was a formative moment for game design in 2000, laying the early foundation for the systems-driven games we now take for granted. The franchise should have been dead and buried after its disastrous sequel, Invisible War. It should have faded away gracefully, content with knowing it had a profound impact on the future of video games. But eight years after Invisible War, Eidos Montreal presented their take on a modern Deus Ex with Human Revolution. And in a world where sequels to successful games are pushed out the door as soon as possible, it's remarkable that Eidos Montreal was given five years to work on their follow-up, Mankind Divided.

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Part of Human Revolution's charm was how decidedly unmodern it was, a janky but earnest cyberpunk game that worshiped at Deus Ex's feet—perhaps to a fault. And it's potent how similar, in ways good and bad, Mankind Divided feels toHuman Revolution. But sadly, the earnest but janky approach doesn't feel as fresh five years later, withMankind Divided doing precious little to move its promising design ideas forward.

The basic setup remains the same. In a universe of augmentations, transhumanism, and robotic fetishism, players are tasked with uncovering an international conspiracy. Like previous games in the series, players are dropped into open-ended environments where they're given apparent freedom to determine the outcome. Really, though, it's either stealth or shooting. It's possible to play with a mixture of the two approaches, but this isn't Dishonored, a game that encourages players to alternate between slinking through the shadows and out-and-out violence. In Mankind Divided, chances are you're either going in guns blazing or looking for an air duct to climb through—not shifting between the two effortlessly.

And that may be what's bugging me about this sequel: predictability. As someone who favors stealth, dumping all of my upgrade points into skills like hacking, the formula is well-worn. I'll approach an area, scour around for an air duct, seek out a computer terminal to hack, and leave through the same path. If that air duct isn't up on the wall, chances are it's hiding behind a conveniently placed box. Rinse, repeat. Perhaps it's my own lack of imagination, but I suspect it's deeper: there's an illusion of freedom in Mankind Divided. The game presents as though players have a plethora of options to solve a problem, but in reality, it's disappointingly limited.

Even the best moments early on are undercut by familiarity. Tasked with breaking into a CEO's office to find some incriminating evidence against them, I'd quietly maneuvered through the—wait for it—air ducts and found myself around the corner from the office. The problem? Tons of guards, laser walls, and security cameras ready to pounce on any irregular activity. There was promise, though, as I'd found my way into the office of the building's head of IT.

Besides hacking, one of the new ways you can gain access to sensitive information is convincing them to help you through an instant messaging client on the computer you've brazenly accessed. Unfortunately for me, messaging from the head of IT wasn't enough; security wouldn't disable the lasers without an ID number that wasn't yet in my possession. This conversation was one 'n done, too; so even if I found the ID later, I couldn't ask again. (Obviously, I found it five minutes later. Drat.)

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But you're never truly without options in Deus Ex, so I decided to show a little spine. I waited for the guard closest to the lasers to turn around the corner, and I began hacking into a nearby terminal. Tick, tock, tick tock…eureka! I was in, the lasers went down, and I was on my way to the CEO's office. After getting what I came for, I was preparing to make my escape when I noticed an air duct that seemed suspiciously close to a room I'd been in a little earlier. As it turned out, that was exactly right; had I looked harder, I could have found a way around the guards, lasers, and everything else.

This should be a quintessentially Deus Ex moment: the realization that the choices you made were just one of many, some paths easier than others. It's an experience I don't get out of many games, even ones drawing on Deus Ex's DNA. It's what obsessively drew me to the series back in 2000. Unfortunately, it's a moment I've felt dozens of times before. The rush isn't as strong. And so, when I find myself getting slightly bored in Mankind Divided, it makes me wonder if the real issue is implementation of that formula, more than the formula itself.

A working formula is vital because the supporting structure isn't great so far. The 12-minute flashback video at the start of Mankind Divided only reminded me how forgettable the core plot of that game really was. And while it's possible Mankind Divided picks up in the coming hours, there's not much to suggest it's going to be anything more than acceptable window dressing. Then again, Deus Ex has always been more about the places you go, not the reasons why.

To be clear, I'm still enjoying Mankind Divided—it's not a bad game. But the bar for Deus Ex is set appropriately high. The clumsiness of Human Revolution was acceptable because, well, I was shocked they pulled off as much as they did. Mankind Divided doesn't get that pass in 2016. It's still fun to poke around air ducts and hack into computers, but I'm hoping the rest of my time in Eidos Montreal's latest cyberpunk fantasy will prove to have grander aspirations.

One thing I can say for sure? You should play Deus Ex Go. It's really good.

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