I recently had a chance to play a chunk of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. A big chunk. Let loose on the game’s first real act – set in the new Prague area, which we’d previously only seen in hands-off demos – I had four hours to explore, discover, and follow through on a mission to investigate potential Illuminati involvement in Adam’s spec-ops organisation.
The thing is, a game as open and malleable as Deus Ex is a tricky one to preview. Following the suggested story beats was going to limit my options, and I wasn’t just there for the plot. I was there to see how freeform Mankind Divided is. I was there to see how much more reactive its world is than that of Human Revolution, and how accommodating to my creative whims. Given the size of the demo, there wasn’t going to be time to play it twice, using different methods. And my standard approach of stealth sniping and misdirection followed by intensive bursts of surprise Batman violence wasn’t going to show me enough. That meant only one thing.
Yes, friends, it was time to go off-reservation and off-message. It was time to get whimsical. So I decided to ignore the story for as long as I could, and just mess with the good people of Prague to see what would happen. These are the things that happened.
First things first. After waking up in Adam Jensen’s new apartment and receiving my orders – head into the secret HQ of my international intelligence agency and plant a gadget to accrue information – I promptly set about doing anything but that, by way of a thorough exploration of the abode. I fired up the TV and checked out some news reports. I listened to Adam’s voicemail. I switched the shower on and off a few times – because you have to, don’t you?
But then I noticed that the bathroom window could be opened (probably wise in a world where all the aircon vents are usually stuffed too full of sneaking secret agents to be of any actual use), and so I left the apartment that way. Upon leaving I realised that I had no idea where Adam’s front door actually was, but no matter. I was out and about, and free to explore.
Immediately upon leaving the apartment, I realise that I have solved the mystery of where Half-Life 3 has got to. Or at least, discover that Square-Enix are as frustrated as everyone else, and seems to have just decided to make the damn thing itself. Between the evocative, Eastern European architectural design, the alien – but somehow organic – juxtaposition of big metal sci-fi bits, security checkpoints, aggressive, and armour-clad cops, this is a place I recognise. But it’s also fresh and new. I approve of this situation. After running and vaulting across a few roofs – thankfully not being peppered by Combine gunfire – I make my way down to the street level.
I don’t stay on street level for long. Because it immediately becomes apparent that verticality really is Mankind Divided’s big new thing. Ledges, ladders, and climable crates are everywhere, just begging me to get off the pavement and go high. “Go on, please climb some stuff”, they plead. “Otherwise my children will not eat this night”.
So climb and climb I do. Even without powering up Adam’s jumping prowess (more on that later), I rapidly have dominion over the rooftops, and navigate a huge chunk of the town’s intricate, winding layout from a bird’s eye perspective. Eventually I find another open window, so I pop in. I find myself in some guy’s living room. He isn’t around, so I proceed to loot his cupboards for health pick-ups, and read his e-mail. Yeah, my usual Chaotic Good persona is out of the window this time. I am playing pure Neutral and profiting fast. There’s nothing interesting in his correspondence, though a newspaper fills me in on some more of the game’s political backstory. Pockets filled, I leap out and into a square below.
Instant karma! That square I plunged my feet into? Part of a gangland enclave. That’s what you get for being cool Mr, Rooftop the whole time and missing all the street signs (they signpost that stuff, right?). The place is crawling with heavily armed goons, and given that I myself am only equipped for a quiet stroll to the office, I decide to hide.
Good news: Deus Ex’s lovely, gluey, third-person cover system is as responsive and reliable as ever. So I sneak, and I stealth kill a couple of bad guys – I’m not quite sure why they’re bad yet, because I’ve completely jumped the narrative gun, but I’m very happy that Mankind Divided’s notably freer, less aug-gated hubworld has allowed me to do that so easily – and then clamber back up to the roof to get a better vantage point, hiding behind a chimney box. I try to shoot a couple more mooks, but then I remember that I only have a stungun, while they have automatic weapons. I quickly die. Oh well, time to reload and pretend none of this ever happened.
I take a more sedate approach this time, and discover a whole new, decidedly less aggressive world by casually pottering around the city’s streets. Off the main path, I notice the entrance to a small park. And in that park, I find a black market information trader, flanked by a couple of apathetic lackies. He only accepts Neuropazyne – the drug that stops Deus Ex’s cybers from suffering a nasty aug rejection – as payment though. Not fancying another gang fight so soon after my last one went drastically wrong, I leave them be. But I’ll be back. Ooooh, I’ll be back…*
*Spoiler alert: Not during this playthrough.
Heading back to the street and through a narrow archway leading into the main square, I come across a rather cocky cop. He’s getting all bolshy in the middle of the road, throwing snark at passers-by, and feels free to sling a mouthful my way as I approach. So naturally, I drop one of Adam’s (non-lethal) melee attacks on him and squash him flat. I’ve only briefly looked around to check that the street is clear before I do this, and his partner has only just rounded the corner ahead. A brief moment of panic. Am I to be beset by half of the city’s police force? How is Mankind Divided’s AI? Is it refined and fair, or a great big, over-sensitive bastard?
Success! I get away with it, swiftly dumping the ‘sleeping’ cop behind a bin and walking into the square like a man without a care in the world. Deus Ex’s stealth seems as precise, and friendly to freeform expression, as the rest of the game does so far. It all feels rather more robust and accommodating this time around. As for the cop? Don’t worry about it. As a spec-ops agent, I’m basically his boss anyway. I’m probably allowed to do stuff like this. He was being insubordinate, and punishments for that sort of thing are are probably harsher in the bleak, cyberpunk future.
Righty! Time for some story, I can’t avoid it any longer. No, I literally can’t, as a radio message from an underground aug-shop owning friend tells me his business is being besieged by a violent gang. That’s who those guys were! Glad I bashed a couple of them now. So I head over to help him out.
The shop front, and surrounding streets, are crawling with goons. Thankfully though, this time I’m not crammed into a tiny town square with them. Immediately, it’s obvious that my options are many. I can ghost it over the rooftops. I can cover-shoot my way through the road in front of the shop, using the cars and crates as a safe(r) route - Heck, I can even bust car trunks open to load up on guns on the fly. I can also try to make my way to an open window on the second floor. And that’s what I do.
I hide in a sewer for ten seconds or so, to allow patrol paths to change, then follow an incoming goon past the little wall I’ve been hiding behind and into an alley a couple of streets from the shop. I put him down, drag his body out of the other footsoldiers’ lines of sight, and scoot up the ladder toward my chosen route in. A hop, skip and jump across some crates and rooftops, and I’m there. I ghost it the rest of the way through the besieged shop, using vents and bookcases for cover, though there’s clearly ample potential for full-blown, multi-layered cover-shooting over several floors. I make it to a secret elevator and head down to my friend’s lab.
A discovery! While getting his augs tuned up, it turns out that somewhere between the last game and this one, someone has installed Adam with a bunch of secret new, experimental tech bits. Not only do they do very exciting new things, but the way they’re equipped and used is rather different to the traditional method. You see, these things use up a fair bit more power than Adam’s usual kit,and so you can I activate a certain number at a time - likely more later on by way of upgrades. But with the ability to switch them on and off at will, that limitation actually becomes an enticing new world of possibility, the need to make the most of these new augs inspiring the design of smart, creative, complimentary combinations for different situations. Yep, welcome to Mankind Divided’s freeform load-out system.
Fancying a bit of refreshed, open combat at first, I combine an accelerated forward-dash with a slow-mo bullet-time firing mode. With the ability to hurtle out of hiding toward a target, before gunning them down at my leisure, I’ve effectively recreated Dishonored’s Blink assassinations. Feeling quite smug about this, I head off on a newly-presented quest to find an item which will reduce the limitations on my new augs. I’m a powered-up, self-made badass now, so bring it on, I say. I stride out, quietly whipping past the goons upstairs, and then within a few minutes I’ve…
The important take-away here is that I learned just how expansive and organically explorable Mankind Divided’s hubworlds are. They seems significantly upraded from Human Revolution, in scale, variety, freedom, and overall sense of being in a real place. Case in point: Prague is so big that it’s actually split into two parts, with a subway ride connecting them. Additionally, the sewers underneath the city are no longer simply short-cuts and break-in routes. They’re so large and winding that you can pretty much cross from anywhere (within a hub section) to anywhere else without seeing daylight. The concept of a parallel under-city - mentioned at one point by an oppressed, subterranean aug pariah - almost rings true.
Anyway, I’m at the subway station on my way to getting a train across to the other side of the city. I realise that I have a few bottles of booze in my inventory - looted from a garage lock-up that I managed to hack open on my way over, using a very similar minigame to that used in Human Revolution. My health could do with a pick-me-up, so I down a couple of them. My health goes up, while my eyesight drops off a cliff. Adam is shambolically drunk, but I am undeterred. But I decide to get out of public view until it wears off. I’ve seen enough hollering, railway drunks in real-life to not want to be counted among their number. And look! What’s that over there? Why, it’s a ‘Staff only’ door. Bound to be something good behind it. I head through, and I find a manhole cover.
I open it, and climb down. I open up my map, and confirm that yes, these tunnels go on for miles. This is exciting, and I am hyped to explore and see what secrets they hold (when I can actually see again). But disaster! The bottom of the ladder is cloaked with poison gas, as is the rest of the chamber. Unable to focus when I first get down there, I don't notice until things go red and Adam starts coughing up thick chunks of God knows what. I shall return, sober, and augmented with air-purifying lungs, but for now, I rapidly ascend, flopping out onto the subway’s cold floor tiles like a dying seal, gasping, debased, but now at least sober.
I get a train to the other side of the city, deliberately get in the wrong ‘non-augmented’ queue at the other end (the cops are a bit sniffy, but basically let me get away with it, because I’m secretly their boss and I think on some level they’re starting to sense it), and head up to street level.
Eager to forget the subway incident, I plunge myself headlong into city life when I reach the other end of my brief train hop. I happen upon a shop, and head inside to warmly chat commerce, and discuss the important socio-political matters of the day with its owner. Ultimately, I realise that he has nothing that I want or can afford, and so I decide to rob his basement.
Pottering around the corner from the counter, I activated Adam’s active camo aug - recently purchased with one of my meagre number of early Praxis points - and shuffle over the the cellar door. I easily hack its lock, and head downstairs. Problem: A security camera is sweeping the small basement. Solution: I reactivate my camo and sneak past, being careful to avoid the camera altogether, just in case. I am nothing if not conscientious. But then I fail to notice an explosive boobytrap at the entrance to the store-room, and die for the second time today.
I reload and have another try, but the shopkeeper spots me going for the door this time. I elect to leave him to it. He is no subordinate, cyber-oppressive cop, and so my quarrel is not with him.
So yes! The side-mission! I have to seek out a local high-level NPC and get the required item from him. There are many ways into his base, each with different requirements and repercussions, but just to see what will happen, I walk straight in through the front door.
Immediately I’m spotted - because the room is full of goons and I’m not trying to hide - and the big man himself comes over for a word. Dialogue tree time! I tell him who I am, and what I’m here for. He respects the fact that I’m not trying to arrest him, but refuses to give me what I want. And so, the great linguistic lockpicking of persuasion and coercion begins. One slight issue. At this early point, I do not yet have the aug that makes it easier for Adam to see what conversational approach is going to be most effective. I have a horrible feeling this is going to go entirely wrong. But you know what? It goes brilliantly.
It seems that the writing in Mankind Divided is a lot more natural and human, and as such the conversations more instinctive to feel your way around. Sensing that my opponent’s stereotype sub-variety is ‘Tough but honourable’, I remain honest and up-front with him at all times, and lightly push my altruism while trying not to sound like a self-aggrandising bullshit-merchant. Within minutes we are best friends, and he has granted me free passage up to his office to get what I need. I head up there and immediately start looking around to see what I can can loot
So I’m up in the office. There’s a locked - but hackable - computer. There’s a locked safe. Deus Ex logic tells me that cracking one will lead to the cracking of the other, so I hit the keyboard. On my first attempt, I get spotted by a passing footsoldier, not seeing him approach as I hack away. Deus Ex’s world still carries on about its business independently from you, whatever you’re tied up with, and you have to stay aware of that.
Not wanting to start a fight right now, I reload. Along my way up to the office, I’ve noticed that the area is laid out for some serious, complex shoot-outs, and riddled with vents, cover, and secret passages, all in that classically smart Deus Ex way. All of this stuff blends away into the reality of the world until you specifically go looking for it. But I’m not up for that right now. The easiest (but dullest) way to deal with the situation would be to wait for the guard to come back, and then quickly hack the computer once he’s gone. I don’t do dull. Instead I throw a bottle across the room from out of sight - Adam can hurl everything from random detritus to prone bodies, at immense velocity, which makes for great misdirection and even better dumping of the evidence - then knock him out when he comes to investigate. I can now hack for days.
I complete my task in just a single attempt though, and casually stroll back through the building and back up onto the street, out of the front door. Honourable badass and I are still BFFs. But he might want to keep an eye on his staff. One of them’s just been up in his office, I think, trying to steal his stuff. Drunk on the job too, I reckon. Passed clean out, and there’s broken glass everywhere.
Now tasked with heading back to Adam’s apartment to do something that I can’t tell you about because *SPOILERS*, I discover a courtyard outside of his building. A courtyard I didn’t notice before because, as mentioned, I didn’t actually use the front door. Or in fact, any doors. Honestly, I’m not even sure where the front entrance to Adam’s apartment is. But while I’m trying to find it, I run into a couple of cult members, just kicking back outside the building, being all weird and slightly sinister, as these guys are wont to do on a bright, lazy Sunday.
It turns out that they’re members of the Singularity Church of the MachineGod. I can’t get enough information out of them to trigger a side-quest, but I get precisely enough to make it very clear that they will be coming back later. *
*Spoiler alert: Not during this playthrough.
No, really, no fucking clue. So I explore the stairwells and corridors of the building, endlessly and from every angle, in the hope that I’ll eventually make sense of the layout and stumble upon it. I don’t. Instead…
Halfway up one of apartment blocks’ stairwells, I discover a vent cover. I bust it open, because of course I do, and head inside. At the other end, I pop out in an abode. Not Adam’s, obviously, because I’m clearly never going to see that place again unless I run into it by accident or find and ascend the exact same rooftops I first climbed down from. No, this place contains an aggressive-looking street tough on patrol and another one in an armchair in front of the TV.
I hide behind a wall for a moment while the guy on patrol draws near, then beat him down once he’s out of sight of the rest of the room. That problem solved, I stroll out to face the televisually entranced woman. I prep for a fight, but it doesn’t come. Turns out she really couldn’t care less that I’m there. Pretty much just calls me a prick and tells me to piss off. I ponder this for a moment, and then get on with hacking her computer.
Once in, I discover that the flat’s owners are part of a small-time drug network, hawking moderate amounts of street drugs. Reading deeper into their e-mail correspondence, I find out that a shipment has gone missing, and that that’s causing friction with a rival organisation. Suspecting that my apathetic new friend may not be binging all of the shortfall, I decide to investigate an address across the city, mentioned in one of the mails. Great news! A new side-quest, and an excuse to stop looking for Adam’s apartment.
Interesting question though: Now spiraling far off the intended line of story progression, would I actually be able to get any respectable way into this quest without a fair bit more levelling up? Human Revolution’s side quests and exploration were rather gated at times, plenty of tempting extracurricular activities locked off until I’d come back with a bag full of Praxis and upgraded the right abilities. Mankind Divided feels comparatively freer in the structure of its overworld, but would everything else follow suit?
Yes. Yes is the answer.
Arriving at the area in question, I find bad news. The door to the room I need is locked, and my hacking skills aren’t high enough to open it. That’s that then, right? No. I notice two window ledges, high up but reachable. I notice another open window, and away I go. Okay, so I’m now next door to the building I want to be in, but it’s a start. And there are ways across. I won't spoil anything my telling you my exact solution, but a quick upgrade to one of my agility augs later, and I'm on my way into the right building. I open up a computer, find a reference to a secret underground party, and go on my way.
Finding the venue entrance, it becomes abundantly clear that I’m not getting in without the invitation mentioned in the e-mail. But with no leads on how to get it - unless I missed it at the previous location - I need to find another way. I find an opening in a nearby wall, but alas, having used my last Praxis point on the ability I used to get this far in the first place, I can’t upgrade my strength to lift the dumpster blocking my path. Damnit, I’m one point away. But hark! A manhole cover! Down I go, into a new area of the sewer. One filled with more poison gas and a tricky run of jumping and climbing challenges if I’m to avoid being choked out again. I leap and clamber past, and make it into even more tunnels. Miles of them. Surely there must be a way into the party down here?
For minutes, I wander, I explore, I climb and I probe, skirting perilously close to the venue’s location multiple times. Eventually, I make my way up. I’m sure I’m close. Close enough, anyway. At the very least I’ve found a way up into somewhere new, and that surely must lead to a clue. I pop up, tumble out of the vent in front of me, and find myself right in the middle of the NPC stronghold from earlier. It doesn’t help, but yet gods am I impressed by how rangey and connected Mankind Divided’s world design is. But damnit, I know I’m so close to nailing this, Oh well, at least…
Yup. Just to make it clear how far I’ve bent the game’s intended progress path at this point, when I eventually do deign to tackle the main mission, and head to my agency’s HQ, upon arrival I’m quickly invited to partake in a gun-range tutorial. After all I’ve been through, they want to teach me how to shoot. At this point my inventory is already maxed out. Like, no more space. And most of it is taken up with guns.
I have a stun-gun. I have machine guns. I have a shotgun. I have two assault rifles. I have a high-powered sniper rifle. I am so, so far beyond where the game thinks I should be. I found that latter weapon in a secret stash room in one of the locations I broke into during the drug conspiracy side-quest. The main point though, is that Mankind Divided seems rather content to let me do whatever I damn well want. Oh, and eventually…
Yes! It happened! My greatest work, accomplished! But I can’t tell you what I did in there, because *SPOILERS*.