We crossed the Atlantic to get some hands-on with the next game in the Deus Ex series. Eidos Montreal had already proved themselves capable with Human Revolution, but can they keep it up with Mankind Divided?
"You decide how you want to play the game." How many times have we heard that line over the last few years? It's something developers tend to throw out there at these sort of preview events. Choose which of the twenty access points to the guarded fortress you wish to take. Choose between the thirty possible ways to kill your target. Choose if you want to play stealthily and non-lethal, or go loud and shoot everything that moves.
Choice in games is a good thing, it enables the player to express his or her play-style, but we would argue that a lot of games misunderstand the point of granting players freedom. A mediocre game simply allows the player to play in different ways. A good game allows a natural shift between play-styles halfway through a level, and lets the player constantly adapt. So if your plan fails and you're forced to change tact, you'll do so with a smile instead of restarting the level. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided understands this and herein lays its biggest strength.
Human Revolution was a tremendous game, but not a game without its fair share of problems. The developers told us to play how we wanted to, but made stealth the preferred route. The fact that the game gave you more XP, if you completed a level without killing anyone told us how you were supposed to play. Clashing against that, stealth was useless during boss battles, which meant a game that didn't feel consistent. This resulted in an experience where we pressed restart every time someone spotted us, and felt frustration every time we came across a boss. That's why it's not enough to offer choices for different play-styles; it's necessary to make all the choices equal, so the player doesn't feel like there's a correct way to go about things.
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As we sit down with the demo, the first thing we notice is how satisfying it feels to shoot. The transition from first-person to third-person when you go into cover feels natural, and your weapons have a weight to them that were missing in Human Revolution. When you fire your gun, you can feel how it hits the enemy, what damage it does, instead of him just absorbing the bullets until he dies. Deus Ex is no longer just an excellent stealth game. It is now also a shooter, capable of standing side-by-side with games like Uncharted and Tomb Raider. You will no longer feel the urge to press restart when your plan fails. When you get discovered, you simply switch out your weapon to a lethal option, and then engage in the satisfying gunplay.
It's clear that Eidos Montreal has listened to their fans, but sadly not everything has been improved in Mankind Divided. The hacking mini-game makes an annoying comeback and even though they've upgraded it, it still feels as confusing as it was in Human Revolution. Back then we had to source a YouTube clip that explained exactly how the mini-game worked; if it's necessary to have gameplay explained by a third-party, then it's simply not well designed. It's weird that a developer, one that so eagerly wants to improve their previous game, stubbornly holds on to a mini-game that is, at best, confusing.
Unfortunately, hacking still plays a vital role in the game, so we'll just have to make the effort and bear with it. Thankfully, Mankind Divided also introduces a much needed remote-hacking ability, which enables you to turn off cameras and walking turrets for thirty seconds. Remote-hacking is a much simpler process than normal hacking, but if you make a mistake the machine will know you tried to hack it and become suspicious. It's a calculated risk every time you try to remote-hack, and it feels so natural for a stealth game like this that you'll wonder how you ever did without it in Human Revolution.
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Mankind Divided is not all about fixing what didn't work in Human Revolution. It's also about improving what worked. Adam Jensen is now more machine than man, and while you'll no doubt wonder just how much of his humanity remains, the new parts allow for new augmentations. And those new augmentations make the game an even more intriguing playground than ever before. The new addition - Icarus Dash - doesn't only open the levels up to what used to be unreachable heights in Human Revolution, it also works as an adequate offensive attack. Think of it as Blink in Dishonored, just with the added ability to crash into an opponent and send them flying.
The combat-oriented Nanoblade allows you to shoot a sword out of your arm and nail enemies to the wall is a welcome addition. If you don't want to use lethal force you can try Tesla, which instead of a sword sends electricity after the enemy and neutralises him silently. Or the P.E.P.S., that sends a shockwave and overturns everything in its way. The new augmentations are not exclusively either loud or silent. Nanoblade may work best with a loud combat-oriented play-style, but we managed to use the sword silently, by shooting it a the sniper that was alone on the roof, or straight into the person that sits alone in a backroom, resting his head. The augmentations don't dictate your playstyle, but simply open the door to multiple options.
Surprises don't only come by way of exploring the augmentations. It also comes by Eidos Montreal toying with player expectation. For example, the demo begins in Dubai's desert, in a tutorial that's supposed to ease us back into the controls again. We move slowly towards our target, but we only manage to take five steps before our mission commander tells us a sandstorm is on the way and we need to hurry.
By now we're deaf to comments like those. It's an often used trick, designed to push the player through the level and give a false sense of urgency. There is no doubt in my mind that the sandstorm will hit regardless of us whether we hurry through the level or take our time. Or so we thought. We decided to run through the level after playing it a few times, not to test whether the sandstorm would hit - we had no doubt that it would - but to see if the game allowed for a speed run.
As we got to the end of the level, we realised we were engaging in the final shootout without a blinding sandstorm blazing through the streets. We had to adapt our tactics and we loved every second of it. It may seem like a tiny detail, but it's a detail the makes us eager to play the whole game. On top of that, there will be a New Game+ mode, which will enable players to encounter similar surprises, things that they'll never see coming.
Deus Ex is not a yearly franchise and for that we can only be grateful. Eidos Montreal has spent their time carefully looking at Human Revolution (revisiting it with the Director's Cut) and listening to their fans, and they have gone on record admitting that mistakes made. As we talk to them they are not afraid to admit what was wrong with Human Revolution and their goal is to make everything better in Mankind Divided. During our session with the game we did not get to try a boss fight, something we had hoped for, as it was a low point in Human Revolution. But after playing the demo and interviewing the developers, there's no doubt in our minds that they'll design some fantastic boss fights, which will allow you to play exactly as you want to. Adam Jensen has returned, and you'll decide if he is to be a merciless killer or a pacifist that leaves everyone alive.
"You decide how you want to play the game". Rarely has that sentence rung as true as when Eidos Montreal utter it ahead of Mankind Divided.