Dystopia and Division: Inside the Oppressive World of ‘Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’

There is little hope for the oppressed in Eidos Montreal's brave new world of augmented people pushed to the margins.

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18 July 2016, 1:01pm

Screenshots courtesy of Square Enix

Since Britain voted to leave the EU, racist incidents have increased by 57 percent. Our unelected Prime Minister put vans on the streets telling immigrants to "go home or face arrest". Across the pond, a plump multi-billionaire wants to put up big walls to keep certain people out. Look around you. Feel it in your bones. This hovering, gormless rock is a more divided, seething and hateful place to live than ever before. See it in the hopeless eyes of your fellow commuters. Everything is fucked. Totally, irreparably, undeniably, fucked.

If you're familiar with this feeling, then you'll tread cautiously when exploring Square Enix's direct sequel to 2011's Human Revolution. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a game that wears a political heart so brazenly on its sci-fi sleeves, is so rife with allegory; you'll have that sinking feeling of familiarity around every apocalyptic corner and in the hopelessness on the faces of every one of its world-weary denizens. "Basic human rights don't exist here," an exhausted "clank", or augmented, informs me down in the dank depths of Golem City, one of Mankind Divided's most striking new locations. There is little hope for the oppressed in this brave new world.

Players reassume the role of grizzled ex-security-man-turned-aug Adam Jensen and venture into a dystopian world set two years after the events of Human Revolution, all boiling over with a stunningly realised and occasionally poignant sense of cruelty and segregation. Since the "Aug Incident", in which augs went batshit and killed a load of people, those with body augmentations have been forced further and further into the outskirts of society and persecuted mercilessly by "natural" humans. There's a terrorist conspiracy at large and a wealth of conversation wheels to navigate, and that's where you come in.

You've probably trawled through the nuts of bolts of this game's narrative a dozen times before, but in terms of its visuals and world building, Mankind Divided is looking very impressive indeed. During the eight hours I spent playing the latest build of the game, I was dragged from the windswept techno-horror of Dubai, through the graffiti smeared streets of divided Prague, and down into the depths of the aforementioned Golem City, a kind of refugee camp for the oppressed augs, mouth agape from beginning to end.

Blade Runner fans will once again be in their element. Neon adverts leer at the player from silvery towers, blocks of apartments crumble from years of evident neglect, and wires and strip lights plague the hapless residents of Golem, cramped into a claustrophobic labyrinth that feels impossibly alive. Right wing news anchors fan the flames of oppression from translucent screens, and bark berserk bollocks from radios strewn around the world. There is a genuinely immersive environment to explore here, with evidence of decay and hate lurking all too often behind the technical beauty.

Under the shimmering surface, Mankind Divided's core gameplay mechanics are effectively building on the foundation built by previous titles in the Deus Ex franchise. Thrown headfirst into a beautiful tutorial sequence, which takes place in the sand-swept, man-made vistas of Dubai, the muscle memories of the previous game come flooding back.

'Deus Ex: Mankind Divided', city-hub gameplay demo

We're promised in the preceding presentation that Mankind Divided will allow players to rattle through the game unseen and with clean hands, a bold claim which could certainly turn out to be true when the full game is released – I didn't kill a single enemy during my playthrough of the preview build, instead choosing to sneak up on enemies or circumnavigate them completely. I'm reminded of how much I love this aspect of the previous games. For every intimidating situation, there's a manky little vent that'll get you through unscathed, or a secret door to hack; or, in the case of Mankind Divided, a way of using the new game's giddying sense of verticality to do an escape number on your opponents from above. You never have to take enemies on or end their lives if you don't want to, and in Mankind Divided it feels like there's more freedom to choose than ever before.

The cover system from Human Revolution returns and remains largely unchanged, if a little clunky to initially navigate. Gunplay is meaty, melee takedowns pack a visceral punch, and the game's menu system is, at this late stage of the game's dev cycle, intuitive and easy to operate. The excellent hacking system – a refreshingly strategic departure from the twisty lockpicks offered by most open-world adventure RPGs – also makes a triumphant return, and capturing nodes feels as satisfyingly clinical as ever before. Refreshingly, the game's conversation wheel also vocalises the exact text that appears in the options – confusing choices based on sentiment are in the bin. And your choices matter more, too – the right conversation choice will make the difference between having to bribe your way past a security guard, or having to find a way around him, or just taking him out for good.

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Holding everything together are the augmentations themselves, and the powers and abilities available to Jensen have also been given an overhaul. Besides the standard "jump down from heights without making a noise", developers Eidos Montreal have included a new set of "experimental augs" with more imaginative and powerful benefits – a blink manoeuvre, a mod which allows you to shock enemies from afar – at the expense of potentially overclocking Jensen's system and causing instability in other areas. It's an interesting risk/reward spin on the typical levelling systems seen in the Far Cry school of power-ups: will you activate that new experimental melee weapon and shut another augmentation down for good? Or will you play it safe for fear of cooking out your CPU?

So far so good for Square's hotly anticipated big-budget sequel. But there's a couple of watchouts. For all the game's startling dystopian atmosphere and sublime world building, for my money Jensen is still an insufferably bland and boring character. He's a grizzled, six-packed, monotonous sedative of a man. He lacks Geralt's charm and sarcasm or the emotional depth and complexity of Solid Snake, but he's still desperately trying to be That Guy. Secondary characters aren't particularly interesting either – besides the introduction of well-drawn and lively early companion Alejandra and the return of David Sarif, for the most part the voice acting felt a bit hammy and video game-y. The Bloody Baron's crown is probably going to be safe for a while.

Related, on Motherboard: How Will Our Perception of Bodies Change as We Augment Them?

Under the hood there's room for a bit of tweaking too. The game's AI is occasionally pretty dumb, and is especially jarring after coming from a game like The Phantom Pain, and the whole thing does feel a little bit too close to its predecessor. There aren't massive leaps being made here in terms of gameplay. Besides a few interesting new additions, you're unlikely to be blown away by the game's innovations in the engine room.

So, it's basically more Deus Ex come August then, but Mankind Divided's fundamental draw will be its atmosphere and a world that's almost numbing in its presentation of the finer details. Golem City is one of the most astonishing locales I've ever seen in a video game, packed with the oppressed and festering with squalor. Wandering the streets of divided Prague, I realised I can't wait to sit down and soak in the full experience, and much unlike the real word and all of its current horrors, this is an unsettling environment you'll likely want to explore for hours and hours.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is released for Xbox One, PC and PlayStation 4 on August the 23rd. Find more information at the game's official website.

@jonothonbeech

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