Dubai, an abandoned hotel under construction. It’s littered with the bodies of augmented workers gone rogue after the events of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Death is everywhere, and the opening section really sets a tone for the game. Gone is the hope of the past, Adam Jensen is stuck cleaning up and dealing with the consequences of technology in a scared and segmented world.
“The early part of the game and themes are quite dark because we’re staring in a place not of hope, like in Human Revolution, but now where everything has gone wrong. The dream of the augmented future is gone,” said Olivier Proulx, Game Producer on Mankind Divided, when I chatted to him during the session. “The segregation and fear mongering is a big part of the world. We didn’t set out to ‘do a darker game’ but I think the themes really come through early on because of what happened in Human Revolution.”
This has come to shape your journey with the game’s protagonist Adam Jensen in a new way. He’s no longer a simple pawn in the game, he has his own goals to pursue outside of what his new Task Force aims to do. You can feel it when you first pick up the controller and select how you want to play – lethal or nonlethal – which determines your starter kit. You go in as a lone wolf more than capable of the situation, which factored in to the game’s design. “We tried to make Adam jensen a bit more focussed, assertive and to give him a bit more power early on,” said Olivier.“The first map of the game – Dubai – starts you off with all the augmentations from HR. On this first map you’re a bit overpowered, but the tactical combat and stealth can be hard for players, so we didn’t mind making you a little overpowered there.”
Even with this ‘slightly overpowered’ balance, the first section proves quite a welcome challenge. The game offers consequence free training at each major encounter to give you a feel for how you can play assault or infiltration, which was a nice touch to make my proper run through the mission feel a lot cleaner. I’d opted for lethal weapons to test how the gunplay and cover system performed, delivering solid, if not a little imprecise, first person fighting.The augmentations come to play a very heavy role in your game, no matter what gameplay path you end up taking. The active vision ability made the climactic ending to the Dubai section all the more tense, giving you small moments to pinpoint your enemies through a sandstorm swirling in over the decrepit hotel. Through the events of the game you’ll reconfigure Adam Jensen and move past the starting augmentations – this is where the fun starts when you reach Prague, the major city hub.
I asked Olivier about balancing the game with so many options for player choice on the table. A key part of making Adam feel real in the world is keeping that edge of challenge regardless of how you build him. “We did a lot of iterations with feedback from QA testing, a lot of user testing and a lot of metric tracking,” noted Olivier, “that way we could see stats and what was being used or not used. Our goal was to get to a place where at any play style, ideally, at any point in the game you’ll feel powered, just not overpowered. It was not easy, considering how many ways there is to actually play the game.”Prague is a big city hub with a lot of mini compounds within the hub, making it really cool to approach through social, stealth or hacking – “it’s naturally built into the environment,” explained Olivier. “It was certainly a challenge to get all this to fit together and we still obviously have to got through some final iterations – the blueprint to a level can be really solid but the execution might be too easy if you were stealth or combat.”
This was a worry from the previous game, with certain sections clearly designed to tailor specifically to a combat or stealth driven playstyle. Some segments were near impossible if you chose to go against the design, but thankfully I didn’t find that as much in my few hours with Mankind Divided. For example, a fellow preview go-er chose to approach the game with pure stealth, using it to avoid a checkpoint in Prague and ended up on rooftops and even triggering a side mission. I however chose to attempt to charm, then bribe an official to gain access to my destination, opting for a less restrained approach in taking down an aggressive street gang.“In Human Revolution I think our designers approached it in a way that was a little on the nose,” explained Olivier when asked about keeping options balanced and open. “I think you could feel it in the level design. Now that team has a lot of veterans from the previous game who’ve taken it up a notch. In Mankind Divided they were really good at designing environments that were a bit more 360 degree with verticality to give themselves a lot more opportunities to create those alternate paths and open new options depending on your augmentation choices.”
“We have a very dense city hub, with much more verticality to it – the sewers, multiple floors, apartment buildings. There’s many districts with plenty to discover,” noted Olivier when discussing how Prague is built. “I think the new generation of console and the fact we developed our own engine allowed us to have pretty massive level design.”
Wandering around the city felt much more immersive than in Human Revolution, offering interesting character interaction with many of the world’s inhabitants. “All the characters have their own occupations, scripted events and they all do something – every character you talk to will tell you something new and unique that they are going through,” said Olivier. “It’s an insane amount of dialogue but at the end it pays off in something that feels very complete and immersive.”One final thing I want to touch on is Mankind Divided’s new mode, Breach. I spent around a half hour with the mode, playing the first few introductory missions. In an odd mix of Mirror’s Edge, Volume and the Deus Ex formula, you run through stylised rooms to hack data and escape before time runs out. It’s frantic and interesting, something quite different from the core Deus Ex experience, and you can probably thank the rapidly diminishing timer for that.
The stylish look is really sharp but it didn’t feel quite as fast as I’d like (as it uses the more tactical systems of the base game) which doesn’t resonate quite as well for time trials. The puzzle solving aspect was quite interesting however, tasking you with hacking objects and avoiding AI guardians. Hopefully it’ll be a hit when the mode drops fully on release, booster packs and all, but for now it’s looking like a promising, if not a little repetitive competitive distraction from the core experience.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is shaping up to be a strong evolution of the story and formula set up in Human Revolution. Delving into darker ideas of the human condition managed to be quite an engaging opener to a game with a lot to explore and learn about, and I look forward to spending a lot more time in Adam’s augmented boots come launch.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided releases August 23 on Playstation 4, Xbox One and PC.