Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a master class in level design. Though individual missions inevitably funneled players from one point to the next, the areas between those points provided numerous possible paths, each of which presented unique strategic options. You could sneak through the shadows in search of hidden air ducts, drop through skylights and scatter any enemies on the ground below, hack open doors that would have otherwise blocked the shortest route, or even punch through walls to create entirely new paths.
Direct sequel Deus Ex: Mankind Divided seems to not only share this approach, but also expands and enriches it by equipping players with an even deeper assortment of tactical tools. At least, that’s what I gleaned from the two missions I played during a recent visit to Eidos Montreal. While I also used this opportunity to speak with the core creative team about the series' cyberpunk trappings, as well as discuss Human Revolution's unfortunate boss battles, the real focus of my afternoon in Montreal was gameplay.
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Like with its predecessor, Mankind Divided’s core gameplay is multifaceted and open-ended. It presents you with a problem, provides you with tools, and says, “Figure it out,” allowing for experimentation and, potentially, some gratifying eureka moments. In this case, I needed to infiltrate a heavily guarded theater in order to confront a mafia kingpin. My tools? A curated loadout of weapons and augments. Typically you acquire these upgrades in a gradual, calculated manner, but because this mission was pulled from the middle of the game, I was simply presented with three different pre-created loadouts, each of which was designed with a different play style in mind: combat, stealth, or a balance of the two.
I opted for a combat playthrough first, assuming it would offer the most straightforward experience. After all, it was totally possible to play Human Revolution as a straight-up first-person shooter, so why not jump in and blow some stuff up? But even Mankind Divided’s baseline shooter gameplay demands strategy. Despite his mostly metal exterior, Jensen’s health depletes rapidly compared to other shooters, while enemies can generally withstand a fair amount of damage. Ammo also proved to be relatively scarce, and although I never ran out, I was forced to loot every enemy I killed in order to continue shooting back.
While this may sound like criticism, such restraints forced me to be creative and think strategically. Cover, for example, proved invaluable. Thankfully, the slightly revamped cover system was robust and intuitive, outside of a few fixable UI quirks. Once you snap to a piece of cover, the camera pulls back into a third-person view, where the game displays a few potential paths for Jensen to travel. You can maneuver a sort of hologram version of Jensen around until you’ve decided where to send him. After that, simply tap a button and Jensen nimbly maneuvers to this new position, making cover more about finding and levering a tactical advantage than fumbling with the controls.
The other way to stay alive in a firefight is to employ Jensen’s combat augments. In my case, these included the crowd-controlling Typhoon mini-grenades, the wall-hacking Smart Vision, and a new augment called the Titan Shield, which negates all damage for a brief period of time (and also materializes with a particularly slick animation). When I finally gave Jensen’s augments a shot, I noticed a crucial update that will undoubtedly impact your Deus Ex experience regardless of which playstyle you prefer.
Whereas Human Revolution used discrete, non-replenishing “batteries” to fuel Jensen’s special augmented abilities, Mankind Divided opts for a far more flexible energy bar. Now when you use an ability, it may gradually drain the meter while that ability is active or take off a certain chunk upfront but recharge up to a certain point afterwards. Each augment seems to utilize energy in a different way, and perhaps most forgiving of all, your meter will never remain completely empty. Every time you bottom out, the energy bar will gradually regenerate up to a certain point--basically enough for one good takedown. Energy for augments is still somewhat scarce, but if nothing else, I’m grateful to see a more sophisticated system in place.
Where Human Revolution used discrete, non-replenishing “batteries” to fuel Jensen’s special augmented abilities, Mankind Divided opts for a far more flexible energy bar.
Of course, there is one final tool that might keep you alive in a firefight: guns. Mankind Divided’s stock weapons are standard fare--a combat rifle with low damage but a high rate of fire, a shotgun with low accuracy but serious stopping power, and so on--but they can now be augmented just like Jensen. For example, double-tapping the reload button quickly cycles through available ammo types. So if you encounter a particularly troublesome turret, you can equip those EMP rounds you’ve been saving and fry its insides that much faster. You can also add custom attachments such as scopes and silencers even in the heat of battle simply by glancing down at your gun, which momentarily pauses the action without actually taking you to a menu.
And while I wasn’t fully able to explore this facet of the game, I did collect various inscrutable “parts” such as hydraulic micropumps and gyroscopic regulators while exploring the theater level. This--coupled with the “Combine” option in the familiar block-based inventory menu--leads me to believe we’ll be able to craft custom weapons and equipment at some point.
Mankind Divided actually shined even brighter when I avoided conflict altogether.
My combat playthroughs led to a number of dynamic, memorable moments--most notably dropping from the upper level of the theater and pulverising a gun-toting goon with a ground pound--but Mankind Divided actually shined even brighter when I avoided conflict altogether. I spent one playthrough simply exploring, and quickly discovered an unguarded path to the back of the theater’s exterior. There I found a wall I could punch through (yes, you still have to find specific weak walls), which led to an elevator shaft that dropped me almost directly in front of the end of the mission. One of the developers mentioned there’s a way onto the theater’s roof as well, but I never managed to find it even after several hours of play time.
My stealth playthrough delivered some excellent moments as well. Highlights include: sniping a guard with my tranquilizer rifle while hidden in a vent, then sniping the next three guards who came to check on their buddy; avoiding detection by remotely hacking a patrolling robot; and piling passed-out bad guys on a basement stairwell because yes, other guards will be alerted if you just leave limp bodies lying around. These mechanics haven’t changed as much as those related to combat, but the theater’s level design allowed for the same non-lethal fun that made stealth such a thrill in the previous game.
The fact that I was able to so fully explore Mankind Divided’s stealth, combat, hacking, and exploration pillars within a single, self-contained area speaks volumes of the complexity and elegance of its design. Much of the game remains under wraps--including social gameplay, open world segments, side quests, and deeper story details--but so far, at least the diverse mechanics and dense environments of Deus Ex continue to live on.