It was only yesterday that I finished Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. I took a completely stealth-based approach, with the only kills I accrued being those from environmental hazards such as loose electrical wiring or other convenient contextually based objects. I never fired one bullet. Despite my stealthy approach, slowly making my way through area, I still felt that that the game came to a somewhat abrupt conclusion, when I was ready and prepared for more.
It isn’t just me that has been left with this kind of impression. Many discussions surrounding the game on various gaming community websites and forums address the same opinions and concerns. After spending £40 on a AAA game from a high-profile studio such as Eidos, we were expecting perhaps a bit… more. Controversial opinions have obviously arisen of conspiracies on Square Enix’s part of withholding game content for DLC and the season pass, but I think there’s more to the argument to address than a greedy publisher.
First of all, the fact that this is a Deus Ex game should give enough clues as to why this opinion exists in the first place. Deus Ex uses a lot of environmental storytelling; for example, there’s an apartment opposite Adam Jensen’s which has a telescope pointed out the window. Some might not think twice about it, but because you can interact with it and see through the telescope yourself, you’re able to discern that it’s pointed at Adam’s apartment – not by sheer coincidence, but with purpose. This actually leads into a very satisfying story quest in the later half of the game which I won’t spoil, but players who take the time to explore early on will understand that everything in Deus Ex‘s levels are placed with meaning and purpose. They aren’t just random items scattered around for making the place look nice, they serve actual meaning in helping to flesh out details of characters and events. Many people won’t bother engaging with this kind of content, which is a shame, because taking the time to make these small discoveries through exploration of the game’s environment is where a good chunk of gameplay time should be spent.
As I got further into the game, I realised that my exploration of Prague in the first few hours of the game meant that I’d discovered and ruined half of the surprises that lay in wait for me in side missions later on. My attentiveness and dedication for scouring every nook and cranny in the city for items and cash meant that I’d come across dead bodies that were part of future side-quests, and discovered key codes and pocket secretaries that gave away details to plots earlier than expected. In one sense, this is actually first-class open world design; it’s entirely possible to stumble across things before you’re led by mission objectives and waypoints in a formal mission. All it meant was that I knew exactly where to go later on, or that I already knew that the person I would be looking for is already dead, and I have a key item I need already in my possession. This was addressed in one mission, where I recovered some contraband as I just happened to hack my way into a police storage container in Golem City. When I was talking to the NPC who would request I retrieve them for him, the dialogue option already existed within the conversation that was initiating the quest with something along the lines of “Do you mean these? I already found them on my way here!”, and thus completing the mission before it even officially exists.
If something only appears after you’ve started the mission for it, it’s possible you might explore an apartment that’s empty on first viewing, but upon returning after activating a mission, it’s suddenly full of items and NPCs that weren’t there before. It does pull you out of the experience somewhat, as you’re aware the game is loading and placing actors and key items as you need them. In Mankind Divided however, these important things exist within this living world before you’re even aware of their significance. The reason I mention these side quests and details in the world however, is because this is where most of my experience lay. Had I just completed story missions blindly without taking my time to explore all of the environment and help everyone I met along the way, my playthrough would have been as short as perhaps five hours or less (assuming you skip dialogue etc.). Glossing over my first playthrough, it would have been far too easy to gun my way through every section and follow the main path, only to arrive at the finish line a lot faster – albeit perhaps not with the conclusion to the story I would have wanted.
However, by taking my time to absorb my surroundings, there were certain decisions I had made through side missions which led me down a route to unlock the ending I truly wanted. I had also met people and discovered information about people which helped enrich my experience, informing me about the world and what I was going into. I had heard all about the Dvali and their reputation before I had even set foot in their hideout through a main mission. I had learned so much about the city and its context through reading newspapers and pocket secretaries, helping all sorts of people from all kinds of backgrounds and difficult situations, and I’d seen parts of the city I wouldn’t have even known existed otherwise. Even returning to play on New Game+, I feel that there are still parts of the city I may have missed, or locked doors I forgot to return to which may have led me down a new hidden path to an undiscovered area. As vigilant as I was to go down every corridor, investigate every brick wall, and read every pocket secretary, I still feel there’s parts of the game that have gone unnoticed and undiscovered.
This is where the argument comes between quantity and quality. As a fact, the length of the game will rely heavily on how you approach it. If you take your time like me, listen to dialogue scenes, explore every path and back alley, and complete every side quest (taking a semi-stealth route), you’re looking at around 30 hours. A good chunk of that will be jumping back and forth between two areas which take a little while to load, which I thought was a cheeky tactic to artificially pad out the length of the game by the developers. There was one mission where I had to catch the subway train five times back and forth between loading areas, which must have added another 15-20 minutes of gameplay purely through loading and traveling times running from place to place. I would discover one piece of information which would drag me back to the north side of the tracks, before having me return to the south and speak to the person I’m doing the mission for, who’d send me back again for more information – and so on.
In argument to all of this however, the variety of areas you explore in Mankind Divided, and the density of detail in each one, completely overthrows any argument I have over its length. Each area has a story to tell, and is filled with rich information that builds layer upon layer of the world’s context. In addition to all of this deep and detailed arrangement of design, you have to consider the multiple approaches each player will have. For the game to truly be part of the Deus Ex franchise, each area and encounter has to be designed for three types of players: the enforcer, the adaptor, and the stealth player. The enforcer is the player who equips the automatic shotgun, the grenade launcher, and learns all of the cool augmented abilities like shooting nanoblades and hurling explosive balls with the typhoon system first. They rush each area, dash from cover to cover, grenades being flung around widely, and no mercy spared. Then there’s the adaptor, who tries to mix a bit of action and stealth, taking out guards quietly with headshots or quickly via non-lethal means, and making the eventual firefight a little easier with less problems to deal with as a result. Using environmental hazards and explosives to help position themselves in a more favourable situation, the adaptor tries to use a little bit of pre-emptive strikes, mixed with the ability to adapt to any firefights that unfold later on, and isn’t reliant on stealth. Finally, there’s my type; stealth. We take our time, find high vantage points, hack systems and turn off security devices, and try to progress through unseen, with non-lethal takedowns dealing with anyone that might be unavoidable or cause concern.
When you consider each area has been designed to accommodate all three major playstyles, incorporate all kinds of unique and detailed open world storytelling, and still be visually interesting and open to complete exploration with each major apartment and building being enterable, is the game really that short? The world of Mankind Divided is so dense with detail, it begs whether we’re the problem ourselves, and not Deus Ex? We’re so used to our Skyrim games and GTA V open world games, with closed off buildings that are only visible from the outside, with no form of really interesting environmental storytelling, and the world simply exists as a backdrop, a stage for the gameplay to take place in. Their scope might impress us visually, and its scale might make up for the lack of dense details inbetween each area, but they fail to capture the unique immersion that a game like Mankind Divided can summon through its design. It was the first game in a while that made me feel as if I was participating within a living and breathing system; a world that continued to operate beyond my interaction as a player. Because of the way it delivers ambiguous and morally neutral decisions, the game has replay value where there is never a clear right or wrong choice to make, and simply lets you explore one of multiple paths with consequences and benefits that are neither in your favour nor against you, they’re just different.
I feel as if Deus Ex: Mankind Divided has not been appreciated properly, and some people have failed to engage with it how the developers intended. Perhaps because it’s different from what they’re used to, or because they’ve been become accustomed to playing open world games that lack the amount of detail Mankind Divided has, that they’re unsure of what to think about the whole experience. Although I initially had the same reaction myself, upon looking back at the decisions I made through my entire playthrough, and after reading through articles spoiling the rest of the story outcomes I could have had, I’ve come to realise that this is a game that can be played through at least three times, in three different ways, and you would have a great experience each time. I believe it’s here that Mankind Divided truly shines. It’s a game that makes a good case for how sometimes, being smaller in scope, but full to the brim with detail, options, outcomes, and environmental storytelling, can sometimes be a much better design than a large and open, but ultimately dull and lifeless space.