Some developers would kill for a set-up as strong and impressive as the modern Deus Ex franchise . Seriously. There are tick marks for what Square Montreal have done with 2011’s Human Revolution and last year’s Mankind Divided almost across the board.
Interesting setting? Sorted.
Excellent atmosphere? Check.
Politically and currently relevant themes? Uh-huh.
Incredible soundtrack and audio? Yup.
Decent and varied stealth-based gameplay? Indeed.
The ability to punch through walls? Che-heck.
It feels like the series is practically begging to be adored, almost like it’s at pains to show you how good its ideas and groundwork is. Problem is that it can’t detract from the fact that both Human Revolution and Mankind Divided have the same problem; they’ve dropped you into an engaging, conflicted world, and created interesting, varied playgrounds for you to explore, sneak around or bash your way through. But there’s nothing emotive or interesting to tie you to it.
Part of the problem is the fact that Adam Jensen, star of HR and MD, suffers from what I’ve taken to calling Geralt-itis. Both Deus Ex and The Witcher 3 present you with male leads that aren’t really customisable; ok, you can give the White Wolf a sick haircut and fancy armour, but your only real means of making Jensen or Geralt your own is through the story-related choices that you make and the dialog options that you’re constantly presented with. Sure, my Jensen can be altruistic, caring and even thoughtful when he wanted to be, but he’s still pretty gruff, fairly blank and he’s about as emotionally expressive as a sodden pancake, much like his silver-haired counterpart in CD Projekt Red’s title. There may be story-based reasons for making these characters so stoic, but particularly with Jensen, in such a cold, metallic and oppressive environment, it’s tough to really feel connected to him, much less like him. You need a character that you can latch onto to provide a bit of warmth, or substance, and it’s simply not there.
Plus, he constantly wears sunglasses indoors. Why, Adam? Why? Why are you shutting the world out?
This wouldn’t be such an issue if the narrative that runs through these games wasn’t so thoroughly rooted in faceless conspirators and needlessly convoluted intentions, but it is. Human Revolution threatened to provide some sort of emotional connection to Jensen and the story in its early offing by apparently bumping off his other half, Megan, and critically wounding him. But my first viewing of that game’s ending was the start of Mankind Divided in their handily-placed recap of the series’ previous entry, as my interest in whatever the hell the Illuminati were up to in Human Revolution had dissipated long before the credits rolled.
Deus Ex loves to spin yarns about puppet masters, manipulation and human advancement, and it’s not like it fails in that regard. The games can really excel when it comes to the latter, and the whole set-up for Mankind Divided was you investigating….something against a backdrop of constant, visible and audible oppression against people with cybernetic limbs and augmentations in Prague. Whilst you walk the streets, you’ll run into people desperate to flee the country, lest they get thrown into the infamous slums of Golem City. You’ll run into grandfathers that just wish to be reunited with their families after scaring them away when their augmentations were on the fritz as a consequence of HR’s cataclysmic Aug Incident; there’s refugees paying to have themselves smuggled out of the city in an attempt to escape the persecution, and they’ll beg you not to muck up their escape plans. There’s even local augmented artistes struggle to cope with the weight of their own worlds crashing down inwardly as the local police get more and more violent.
If all of that sounds interesting, then that’s because it is. Mankind Divided and Human Revolution both know how to tell small, emotional and effective tales that feed into their primary narratives, with a beginning, middle and an end. Especially in Prague, each of them feels like a reaction to the Aug Incident, and they reinforce the constant oppression that Augs face. It’s in every little detail, especially around the subway; you’ll frequently get stopped for ID when you exit a train, get scolded for riding on the non-Aug carriage or sneered at for daring to go through the turnstile reserved for ‘normal’ folk. Even if Jensen himself doesn’t suffer any truly significant problems as a result of your augmentations, the effects of the oppression are everywhere, and you feel part of it. You feel like an outsider, like you don’t belong.
And that’s why Square’s lack of desire to take their games into a space where conspiracies aren’t the focus, where some sort of emotional connection is allowed and where Jensen isn’t so oppressively wooden is so frustrating. All of the ingredients are there; the music, the gameplay, the vision of this futuristic but problematic world are all there, but there’s nothing worth fighting for. There’s nothing to latch onto that gives you a reason to see things through to the end, other than your own determination. I failed to finish Human Revolution and Mankind Divided at fairly similar stages; the story had failed to grip me, side content had dried up and I found myself stuck in a heavily guarded environment with no real reason to complete my objective. So I didn’t.
And you know what? That’s a gigantic shame. Outside of their main narratives, Detroit, Hengsha and Prague are all excellent hubs with interesting stories and distinctive visual appeal. Michael McCann’s incredible soundtrack is frequently absorbing, using elements of ambient and electro music to reflect Jensen’s state depending on whether he’s mooching, hiding or shooting the crap out of stuff, and has the ability to place you into the world instantly. It’s evocative and powerful, and listening to it as I write this up, I can mentally place myself into Jensen’s shoes, sneaking around vents in banks, helping out wayward folk or relaxing in his dimly-lit digs.
Don’t get me wrong; recent news that Mankind Divided’s sales have underwhelmed to the point that the series is now indefinitely on hold is a blow, because this series has plenty to offer, and I hold out hope that it will eventually have a tale to tell that matches up to everything else that it’s got going on. But for now, it sits as a series characterised by potential that doesn’t quite pay off.