My favourite game of all time is a title that has changed hands more than once throughout my life. It’s a list of games populated with all the regular cliches. Final Fantasy 7 is often at the top, for instance, though sometimes I’ll say Final Fantasy 4 when I’m feeling like a hipster. I love strong storytelling in games, and those are the games that introduced me to the concept. For a little while my favourite game was Perfect Dark on the N64 because of the combat simulator and all the options it provided. For the past while Mass Effect has been a regular go to. I’ve never felt more immersed in the role of a heroic character in a video game than I have for Shepherd in that game. The storytelling is so strong, and can change so drastically based on your choices that I really felt I was living the life of a starship captain and proving once and for all that I’d be amazing at it. And I was a complete bad ass. Dare I say I got, arguably, the best endings all three times on my first tries without really trying at all. Just role-playing. If everyone has one genre that is their genre, this genre is mine.
There is another game, similar to Mass Effect in many respects, that sometimes graces my favourite games list. I tend to name it only when I really want to sound pretentious, as it is perhaps the ultimate example of an underappreciated gem. Most people without my level of gaming history have no clue what Deus Ex is, though Square Enix has done a lot to garner the franchise some attention. It was a beautiful PC game from the year 2000, that has some of the best features of many different games like Fallout, Mass Effect, and Vampire the Masquerade. In fact those games might each owe a bit of their existence to Deus Ex, a game that gave you complex moral choices where the sides you chose drastically effected how the rest of the game played out. You could choose which augments to level up, which fields to expertise in. You could become a master hacker and hack your way through the game, taking control of turrets or robot bodyguards. Or shoot your way through. Or sneak through, knocking out the enemies without them seeing you and making it through the whole game without a casualty. Though glitchy as most PC games were then and now, the strength of the gameplay shone through and the strong heady narrative took most review scores over the top. There’s a reason it is said that anytime anyone mentions Deus Ex on the internet, someone else goes back and reinstalls that age old game.
So it was with a lot of excitement that fans accepted the Square Enix reboot Human Revolution with open arms. Like JJ Abrams’ take on Star Trek, the first game under the makers of Final Fantasy took place before the Deus Ex we know. Playing the parent to your original player character, you get to go about all the same things you loved doing in the old games. You have augments that you can upgrade, some improving health or weapons, others effecting decidedly different mechanics of the game. The story brought a lot of the same noir feel, but made the character come across as even more of your cliched private investigator type. It really struck a fun blend for fans of the genre, and a lot of the gameplay was streamlined to make you feel bad ass. Like Mass Effect, Deus Ex goes out of its way to immerse you in the world and give you the reigns.
Though it feels like forever since the last game, Mankind Divided continues right where the previous game left off. A lot of the interface feels the same, and you’ll be doing a lot of the same motions you went through before. If you’re not interested in world building this is the wrong game for you. A lot of the game is spent reading through people’s emails, and PDA devices. There’s even E-books littered around, like Skyrim, and I tried to read a number of them but they all seemed like a lot of nothing useful. The emails and PDAs, however, are very useful in dropping important character info that can help you with dialogue, locations of secret loot, or passwords for computers that would otherwise be a pain to open. This is a game that rewards exploration and investigation. It pays to pay attention at all times. It’s also a game where, even when armed to the teeth, the best option might just be to keep your gun holstered and talk your way out of a problem.
The game starts out in a Metroidvania way, in that you begin with all your powers and then conveniently lose them after your first mission, to have to level back up to the bad ass you were before. The narrative excuse for it this time around was even more flimsy than usual, leaving me to wonder why they even bothered at all. They say your augments (Abilities) go on a glitch after being stuck in a storm, but then they added some weird storyline about how some of your augs are secret hidden augs that only just surfaced and you never knew about them. Except you had them in the first mission. And it seemed like all the new powers Jensen gains could have been explained so easily, or even not at all, but they choose the most obtuse non-sensical narrative function to do it and in the process brings down the whole rest of the narrative. The worst part is that it all feels like it was tacked on last minute to sell the micro-transactions. That’s right. You can pay to unlock skills early.
The story is a little less personal than it was last time around. The first game had a big focus on the story behind Adam Jensen, and the threat was global. This time around, you’re still uncovering conspiracies but the threat is less an enemy you can fight so much as it is the social embodiment of intolerance. You’re put in a world after the consequences of the first game, where augmented people are mistrusted and hated upon. They are treated like second class citizens and everywhere you go there are clear examples of police abusing their authority in ways that strike extra true in today’s troubled times. For someone interested in exploring a deep, rich, morally complex world then this is the game for you. It is to first person shooters what the Witcher franchise is to RPGs. Just don’t expect it to be nearly as long, a disappointment when by the time you feel upgraded enough to be effective, you are already most the way through the game. There are other ways to level up, including an app on the iPhone, but it still feels like if you want to be a bad ass long enough to enjoy it, Square Enix is hoping you pitch in a few extra dollars. I wish if games would go this route, they would at least lower the price of their games up front or make them free to play.
The game looks great, especially when compared to the last in the franchise. The last game looked fine for what it was, especially with indoor environments, but everything had a very orange tint to it. This time around they were able to take the same gameplay we love, and provide larger areas to explore and better visual fidelity than ever before thanks to the power of the next generation. It is, then, quite disappointing that the lip synching with the dialogue is so blatant and noticeably off. It’s like the mouths are moving at random whenever their voice actor makes a noise. Considering the strides that have been made in this field it’s extra peculiar that this was tackled so poorly here.
There is also a slight problem of how busy the environments are. The game does a decent job of highlighting important objects, at the risk of distracting away from the quality textures, but even with the glowing highlights it often feels like you’re pixel hunting for clues in an adventure game. There’s a lot of good to see here, and a lot of beauty to marvel at, even in all the filth of these dystopian streets. And the character models are quite lifelike themselves, when they don’t open their mouths.
The sound is a mixed bag much like the rest of the game. The dialogue has obviously been recorded with great care, and the performances do an excellent job of drawing you in, even with the poor lip synching. It is perhaps a testament to the quality of the voice acting that the lip synching is little distraction from the story. The writing is still top notch, and the dialogue, though wordy like an Aaron Sorkin script, flows and feels genuine not stilted.
The actual soundscape is done pretty well, with sound effects feeling somewhat authentic. A lot of things in this game are movable, and can scrape against each other. The folly artists clearly put a lot of work into their jobs. The gunshots however come across a little weak, popping more like toy guns than real weapons. This has been a problem I remember plaguing the franchise all the way back in the original game. Also the environmental filters put on the sounds and dialogue in a lot of the environments felt a little more tin-y than they should have been.
There are plenty of reasons to replay this game, especially considering all the different choices that can change how the game plays out. This time around, however, the game will still take you to all the same places no matter your choices. This really is a more constrained tighter experience than any other Deus Ex, and that works against it. The campaign is enjoyable the first time through but I can’t guarantee it’ll continue to be fun after your third time. There are more than just a few side-missions, but they felt like minor deviations that helped build the world while providing little to the replay value. There is some kind of strange tacked on mini-game you can access from the main menu called Breach. I gave it about 15 minutes of my time, but it seemed like something I could have played on my phone… and then it crashed my Xbox. If you’re looking for a deeper, but ultimately vapid delve into the Deus Ex world through some wonky computer UI that has little to do with the main game, this will be right up your alley. For everyone else, this isn’t what you came for. it might be better to rent the game and binge it over a week, that is if you’re already a Deus Ex fan.
While this game is far from perfect, and has a far less personal story than the previous entry, I can’t bring myself to give the game a low rating or even talk smack. If you’ve never played Deus Ex before, it might be worth it to play Human Revolution first, now backwards compatible on the Xbox One. That’s the game that will give you the definitive experience. Like the pilot of a TV show ten years ago, Human Revolution builds the setting and characters opening the door for Mankind Divided to deal with a more monster of the week plot. This time around, the monster of the week just happens to be intolerance and racism. Despite the heady themes in the spotlight, however, the length of the campaign comes off a little short and while it’s an enjoyable Deus Ex experience all the way through, it might not be the best place to start for beginners to the franchise. Play Human Revolution, knowing that if you like that this will be more fun to enjoy when you’re done. And if you’re still enjoying yourself, maybe pick up the original 2000 hit on Steam.
Screenshots By: Sabrina Mendez