The shooter genre has never been stronger.
Juggernaut franchises like Halo, Call of Duty and Battlefield continue to excel with each new installment. Classic FPS franchises like Doom and Quake are making a comeback, and new kids on the block like Titanfall and Overwatch continue to prove that there is still plenty of room for innovation in the genre.
That being said, FPS games aren't known for giving players all that many options. If an FPS isn't multiplayer-only and does happen to have a campaign mode, it's most often a shooting gallery that sees the player move from one pre-created set piece to another, with little room for experimentation or problem-solving.
It's for that reason the Deus Ex franchise continues to hold such a unique and refreshing role in the modern video game landscape. Just like the original Deus Ex back in 2000, the new entry in the franchise, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, gives players a plethora of tools and skills needed accomplish the game's various goals, and then turns players loose to solve them however they see fit. That formula is still addicting in 2016, though unfortunately, Mankind Divided doesn't quite live up to the lofty expectations of its predecessors in every regard.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a direct sequel to 2011's Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Protagonist Adam Jensen is back, now a member of an elite anti-terrorism task force in the wake of the events of the previous game. Mechanically-augmented humans are looked down upon and treated as inferior by many "naturals," which in turn leads to violence and hatred on both sides of the divide ... which is precisely what the illusive men behind the curtain, the Illuminati, want to happen. It's not Deus Ex without conspiracy, after all, so Jensen once again finds himself desperately searching for the truth in a world that seems determined to hide it.
Those who don't remember the events of Human Revolution (or never played it) can opt in for a lengthy 12-minute recap video at the beginning of Mankind Divided, and given how many characters, themes and world events carry over into this new title, it's probably a good idea to do so. The Panchaea Incident from the end of Human Revolution in particular serves as a major foundation upon which Mankind Divided's world is built, so the game's free history lesson is definitely appreciated.
Those who did play Human Revolution will feel right at home, with Mankind Divided going so far as to include to the option for an almost-identical control scheme from the previous installment. From the game's cover mechanics to its augmentation upgrade system, its gunplay to its hub-city structure, Mankind Divided follows Human Revolution's playbook almost to the letter.
Given how excellent that game was, that's not necessarily a bad thing. In true Deus Ex fashion, the game allows for numerous playstyles. Those who wish to play the game as a tried-and-true FPS can go in guns blazing with a variety of weapons and special abilities to get the job done, using the game's still-excellent cover-based system to battle it out with enemies. Those who prefer a stealthier approach will find there are plenty of options there as well, as players hide behind walls, crawl into ventilation shafts and hack security doors. You can kill every enemy you meet or spare everybody's life. The options are all there, and the joy of Deus Ex is figuring out what options you want to incorporate into your playstyle.
Players have a number of new tools this time around, regardless of preference. Early on in Mankind Divided, Jensen learns about a number of new "experimental" augs that have been lying dormant in his system. These new abilities range from wrapping the player's body in an indestructible liquid metal to shooting swords out of Jensen's arms and much, much more.
There is, however, a catch to all these added bells and whistles. In addition to players having to invest upgrade points to unlock these abilities, like all of Jensen's aug abilities, experimental augs put extra strain on his systems. Having more than one active experimental aug causes Jensen to go into overclock mode, forcing players to then permanently deactivate another experimental aug in order to cool down his system. This forces players to make some choices early on about their desired playstyle by eliminating some potential upgrades, but it's not as permanent as it sounds, thanks to an optional side quest players can (and should) complete. The new augs especially give some powerful new options to players interested in taking a stealthy, non-lethal approach, something that was sorely missing from Human Revolution.
No matter how players choose to upgrade their character or overcome their foes, they'll be doing a lot of exploration throughout Mankind Divided, particularly in the game's sole hub area of Prague. Exploring, after all, is part of the franchise's lifeblood, and every nook and cranny of Prague is well worth seeking out. Every computer, every apartment, every Personal Secretary has a purpose in the game and a story to tell, and it makes the whole act of meticulously hacking every computer and breaking into every forbidden area extremely rewarding. Be sure to invest skill points in hacking, wall-punching and the ability to lift heavy objects, as they open up all kinds of new pathways for players.
It's unfortunate, then, that Mankind Divided doesn't actually do more. Though it's built upon the mostly excellent bones of Human Revolution, Mankind Divided struggles to push the series forward. In the gameplay department, that's mostly fine given the solid foundation it slightly builds upon, though the game's mostly-the-same energy system still feels too restrictive for those who prefer to go the stealth route over cover-based shooting. However, it's the narrative that is unquestionably Mankind Divided's weakest link.
That's not to say it's bad — not by a long shot. There are still difficult choices to make, NPC conversations to be had and a new conspiracy to unravel. Many of the game's side quests are excellent self-contained adventures that add plenty to the overall package, even if NPCs do occasionally look a bit unnatural during dialogue sequences. In general, the game's writing does a great job, especially in its handling of difficult subjects like racism and oppression.
It's just that Mankind Divided's core story line never feels as if it has significantly moved the ball forward. Compared with the world-changing, massive choices players are presented with at the end of Human Revolution and other games in the franchise, Mankind Divided's tale feels small and lacking in any real revelations. When the credits started to roll, I was honestly surprised, as I expected there to be one final mission or act. There is a climax to it all, but overall, the game's narrative feels like a stepping-stone for a much bigger and much more interesting story. In fact, Mankind Divided feels small in more than just its narrative scope. It's significantly shorter than Human Revolution, with fewer side missions and fewer hub areas. There is only one boss fight compared to the three in Human Revolution, and the missions outside of Prague don't venture outside of Europe (with the exception of the Dubai tutorial mission).
That is precisely why the game's Breach game mode is so perplexing. Breach is a single-player, score-focused game mode accessible from Mankind Divided's main menu that has players donning the role of "Ripper" (see: Hacker) in cyberspace. Gameplay-wise, it's almost identical to the main game, as players engage in cover-based FPS battles with humanoid security programs in an effort to extract data from any given level as fast as possible.
It's a decent enough distraction, but it's painfully obvious the mode was inserted simply as a means for Square Enix to make a few extra bucks, as players can spend real money to obtain new items of differing rarities to aid them in their virtual battles. The mode seems to exist solely for this reason, and as fun as Mankind Divided's core gameplay is, Breach simply isn't entertaining by itself without the franchise's narrative and exploration elements behind it.
After playing through Mankind Divided's main story proper, I couldn't help but have the feeling that perhaps all the extra time and effort put into Breach could have been used to deliver one more story mission, one more environment or, at the very least, a few more side quests, to the part of Mankind Divided that players actually care about.
Taken together, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided doesn't end up breaking new ground. Then again, when it's built upon the core tenants of one of the most critically acclaimed games of the past two decades, it doesn't have to. Eidos Montreal continues to do the Deus Ex franchise justice in Mankind Divided with its ever-present focus on choice and open-ended gameplay. At the end of the day, it lacks the ambition of its predecessors and simply fails to surprise. When it comes to the franchise's tried-and-true gameplay, perhaps not having too many new bells and whistles is a good thing. When it comes to the game's critical narrative, however, a few surprises would have been nice.
This review is based on impressions from an Xbox One review copy of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided provided by Square Enix.