Despite the long black coats and gaudy neon, the Deus Ex series’ central conceit isn’t cyberpunk dystopia. The franchise is better understood through a question: “What if conspiracy theories – all of them – were real?” Here, no one can be trusted, everyone’s always working multiple angles, and everything goes straight to the top! It’s a stressful, draining world to inhabit.
The first Deus Ex arrived in June of 2000 and deftly wielded that anxiety, breaking down preconceptions and challenging its audience with big-picture questions about the role of government all while positing power as a zero-sum game. As JC Denton, a cybernetics-enhanced super soldier, you broke up terrorist cells and tried to bring the world greater peace. You were the ultimate one-man-army operative.
Rewinding the clock to see just how Deus Ex‘s unnerving future came to be, the 2011 prequel, Human Revolution pulled away from those grander questions to focus on more intimate problems, this time as Adam Jensen. You were still a cybernetic warrior, still decked out in all the trappings of late-80s dystopian cyberpunk, but you were just managing your little corner of the world, instead of trying to sort out the whole of global politics in a few evenings of play.
That shift in scope is even more apparent in Mankind Divided, a sequel to the prequel (confusing, I know). Instead of bouncing between continents dealing with political brush fires, Mankind Divided takes place almost exclusively in Prague. That shift comes with a more introspective tone. Last time we saw Jensen he was still wrestling with the psychological reality of being a modified human, waking up each morning with arms of carbon fiber and servos instead of muscle and bone. Like Icarus, he worries that he’s reaching too far beyond his humanity. Now, he’s working on figuring out how to limit his own power, who he wants to be, and what morals, if any, he’s willing to commit to.
And that’s where you come in. Deus Ex has always held player choice to be sacrosanct. Its levels sprawl in labyrinthine networks of viable paths and points of ingress. As a fresh addition to Interpol’s counter-terrorism unit, you’ll find yourself dumped in one area with hundreds, if not thousands of possible paths. If you’re caught, much like the original, you can talk your way out of pretty much any problem. Or, you could murder everyone.
As before, those choices matter until they don’t. Mankind Divided holds them as equally valid options because violence isn’t functionally different than non-violence. But it tries to keep to an implicit condemnation of causing a ruckus. If you ghost a mission, choosing stealth and avoiding detection, the world will react with intrigue. Newspapers will run headlines talking about the mysterious figure that stole some McGuffin. If you’re non-violent but aggressive, though, the media will spin you as a vigilante or a terrorist – regardless of whether you killed guards or opted to put them all to sleep with tranquilizer darts.
And that’s where the game runs into trouble. It’s fine to build out a virtual world that pressures its players and asks them to rethink their goals and motivations, but it does so at the cost of asserting any kind of “good.” In many ways it holds mass slaughter in the same regard as pacifism, but the two are antithetical.
Mankind Divided‘s plotlines, while complex, nuanced, and backed by some well-written characters, are wound too tightly. Like the Icarian myth it references, the game bites off a bit too much. It wants to discuss how regular people might react to the presence of the augmented. When your neighbor can be more human than you with augments – able to run faster or play a piano better, able to do and see and live more than you can – fear and insecurity follow, and it’s easy to see how that could tilt into more extreme oppression. Playing as Adam Jensen, however, undermines that narrative thread because no matter how many police checkpoints you submit to, you’re still a superman.
Mankind Divided asks compelling questions. It dances in moral greys and left me with a persistent, ringing self-doubt. The moments that inspired that insecurity are some of the best in recent memory, but often it fires off like a political shotgun. It aims at dozens of complex, multi-faceted issues, hitting most of its marks but missing often enough to cause some collateral damage.